Four games into their first round playoff series, the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders are tied in games won, 2-2. Though they are even, one would not say that they got to their position in the same fashion. For the Capitals, one can see what they have done well and, just as important, what they need to do better. For example…
-- Scoring at even strength. The Islanders have ten goals in this series, nine of them scored at five a side, the other into an empty net. On the other side, the Caps have seven goals in the series, six at full and even strength, one on the power play. A 5-on-5 goals scored/goals allowed ratio of 0.78 (11th among 16 playoff teams) is not a lasting recipe for success. They need to do better here.
-- Shots. We have long been of a mind that shots matter. In the Islanders, the Caps are facing a team that finished second in the regular season in shots per game (33.8, second to Chicago’s 33.9). The Caps have shaved a couple of shots off that average in the first four games, the Islanders averaging 31.8 shots per game (ranked seventh). The total shot attempts favor the Islanders, but not by as large a margin as one might think for a team whose principle traits include speed and possession. New York is averaging 64.4 shot attempts per 60 minutes in the series, while the Caps are averaging 62.1 attempts per 60 minutes. It is an area that could stand improvement for the Caps, but the situation here is not of the dire sort.
-- Forward scoring. The Caps have seven goals from forwards in this series. That is a bit disappointing, but the problem here is the utter lack of balance. Nicklas Backstrom has half of the goals from forwards (three), Alex Ovechkin has a pair, and Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera have one apiece. Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jay Beagle, and Evgeny Kuznetsov all are averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time a game through four contests, and none of them have scored. Ward has a pair of assists, and Beagle has one among that quartet, but the Caps have to start getting production out of the second and third lines in this series.
-- Power play. The best power play in the league this season (25.3 percent) is getting few chances (seven in four games, tied for fewest among 16 playoff teams) and is converting at barely half the regular season rate (14.3 percent/11th). The Islanders have been able to muffle the Caps’ man advantage, allowing only 11 shots on goal in 12:54 of Capitals power play ice time. And that has been a product of limiting the shots on goal from Alex Ovechkin, who has four of those 11 shots on goal for the Caps.
-- Penalty killing. Meanwhile, on the other side of the special teams divide, the Caps are the only team (knock on wood) with a perfect penalty killing record in the post season. The Caps are 10-for-10 over the four games. In getting to that mark they allowed the Islanders 20 shots on goal in 20 power play minutes. A big part of that has been holding the Islanders’ top power play goal scorers – John Tavares (13) and Brock Nelson (10) – to a minimum of shots. Nelson has four power play shots in the four games, and Tavares did not register his first power play shot on goal until Game 4 (he finished with two).
-- Momentum. This is a feature that one might be prone to viewing through rose-colored lenses, but consider this. The Islanders outscored the Caps by a 7-2 margin over the first 94:09 of the series, a 4-1 win in Game 1 and a 3-1 lead they took in the second period of Game 2. Since then, the Caps have outscored the Islanders by a 6-3 margin over the last 157:15 of the series.
-- Best of three. Home cookin’ isn’t an advantage if the cook can’t boil water. On paper, the Caps should have an advantage. But be careful here. The Caps were 6-6-0 in their last 12 games of the regular season, and in the post-2005 lockout era they are just 17-16 in playoff games at Verizon Center (1-1 in this series). It is the Caps' inability to win on home ice that is arguably the biggest source of disappointment in their post season record since the 2005 lockout.
In the end…
The Caps – both this team and as a franchise – have been here before. Twice since the 2005 lockout the Caps have returned home to a Game 5 having split the first four games of a series. In 2009 they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, in overtime on an own goal:
In 2013 the Caps won Game 5 against the New York Rangers, 2-1, in overtime at Verizon Center, courtesy of Mike Ribeiro:
We would just as soon the Caps make quick work of the Islanders in this contest, but there are things that the Caps need to work on to make that happen and take a stranglehold in the series.