Monday, August 31, 2020

Washington Capitals: 2019-2020 By the Tens -- Forwards: Travis Boyd

Travis Boyd

“I tell the kids, somebody's gotta win, somebody's gotta lose. Just don't fight about it. Just try to get better.”
-- Yogi Berra

At what point does “prospect” become “marginal NHL player?”  That’s hard to say, other than the usual “you know it when you see it.”  It might not be that simple in the case of Travis Boyd.  It is not as if Boyd came into professional hockey as a prime, prized prospect.  He was drafted 177th overall (sixth round) by the Washington Capitals in 2011.  He then spent four years in the University of Minnesota program.  He spent two full seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL and most of a third before he got his first taste of NHL action – eight games in 2017-2018 (plus one in the postseason).  He skated a career high 53 games in 2018-2019 (plus one in the playoffs) before falling back to 24 games this past season (and another four in the postseason).

But here is the thing.  In 85 career regular season games, roughly the equivalent of an NHL season, he has eight goals and 31 points, and has a plus-17 rating.  These are pretty solid numbers for a player assuming a bottom six forward role.  This past season, one in which he went 3-7-10, plus-9, in 24 games, he finished with a per-82-game average of 10-24-34, plus-31.  The eye-popping number, though, is this: 16.  The Caps were 16-6-2 in the 24 games in which Boyd played.  They were 8-1-0 in the nine games in which he recorded a point.

Fearless’ Take…

Whether a product of his skill, being merely a good-luck charm, or sunspots, the Caps have been more successful with Boyd in the lineup than without him.  In his three years of NHL experience, the Caps are 58-21-6 (.718 points percentage).  Without him, they are 80-51-17 (.598).  Over his career, the Caps are 23-4-1 when he recorded a point, unbeaten when he posted a goal (8-0-0).  If secondary scoring is a thing, and if it matters (yes, and yes), Boyd has provided a measure of it in his limited exposure to NHL competition.

Cheerless’ Take…

Hey, here is another eye-popping number, cuz: 13.  The Caps were 3-4-1 in the eight games in which Boyd skated more than 13 minutes, 13-2-1 in the 16 games he skated less than 13 minutes.  And a strange number: 1.  The Caps had only one loss when he recorded no shots on goal (6-1-0).

Odd Boyd Fact… Travis Boyd posted a total of 96 career points at the University of Minnesota.  The same number of career points as Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets (okay, Wheeler did it in 21 fewer games).

Game to Remember… November 1, 2019.  Travis Boyd had one multi-point game in the 2019-2020 season, and the Buffalo Sabres were the victims.  He posted both points in a four-goal first period for the Caps.  Jakub Vrana opened the scoring just over six minutes into the game.  Less than a minute later, the Caps found themselves dashing into the Sabers’ zone on a four-on-one break.  Brendan Leipsic carried the puck into the offensive zone on the left side, where he then fed the puck across to Boyd skating into the right wing circle.  The puck spent almost no time on his stick, fed back into the middle for Chandler Stephenson, who deked goalie Linus Ullmark to his knees and lifted a backhand into the top of the net.  It would prove to be the game-winning  goal, but Boyd was not finished.  His second assist was a thing of individual beauty.  Taking a pass at center ice in front of the players’ benches, Boyd skated down the right wing.  Upon gaining the zone, he stopped, freezing a Sabre defender, and then skated down the wall.  He carried the puck around the Sabres’ net, and from the goal line extended, he fired a pass to Brendan Leipsic at the bottom of the right wing circle.  Leipsic wasted no time snapping the puck into the back of the net, giving the Caps a 4-0 lead at the first intermission on their way to a 6-1 win. 

Game to Forget… November 7, 2019.  When the team wins, everybody wins.  Still, when you are not participating much, that winning feeling might not be as strong.  Boyd skated a team-low ten shifts and 7:24 in ice time, a personal season low.  He did not record a shot attempt, and the only mark on his score sheet line was having taken one faceoff, which he won.  Nevertheless, the Caps pulled out a 5-4 win 17 seconds into overtime on a Tom Wilson goal.

Postseason… Travis Boyd dressed for four postseason games.  He scored a goal in his first appearance, the lone goal in a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in the round robin phase.  It was the only point he posted in the four games he played.

Looking Ahead… Boyd is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent, coming off a two-year deal that paid him $800,000 a year.  He would not command a high price tag upon re-signing, but a flat salary cap heading into 2020-2021 makes every dollar count.  And, with Boyd turning 27 in September, and having had spotty appearances over three seasons, it is an open question whether the club will think he merits another investment.  Boyd has been productive in limited appearances in Washington, and he is the kind of depth player of value to a team.  However, one has to wonder if his future lies elsewhere, where he can get more, and more regular playing time.

In the end…

Travis Boyd is one of those players who has performed well at every stop but has difficulty breaking into that last top level.  In 113 games in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, he was 23-39-62.  In four years with the University of Minnesota, he was 32-64-96 in 148 games.  In 217 games with the Hershey Bears, he was 53-113-166.  Not big time scoring numbers, but evidence of punch.  But whether his skill set is not quite enough, or he is the victim of numbers at forward with a strong Caps team, he has not been able to break through to claim a regular spot in the lineup.  As he turns 27, where he should be entering the prime years of his career, is time for the restricted free agent running out with this club?  As the saying goes, time will tell.

Grade: B

Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images North America

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Washington Capitals: 2019-2020 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
-- Winston Churchill

If Nicklas Backstrom was never to play another game for the Washington Capitals, his place in the pantheon of franchise greats would be secure, and he could be counted among the best centers of his generation.  He ranks highly in just about every meaningful career statistical category:
  • Games: 956/4th
  • Goals: 243/4th
  • Assists: 684/1st
  • Points: 927/2nd
  • Plus-minus: +119/1st
  • Even strength goals: 167/4th
  • Even strength points: 551/3rd
  • Power play goals: 74/4th
  • Power play points: 374/2nd
  • Overtime goals: 8/T-2nd
  • Game-winning goals: 38/4th
  • Credited hits: 704/10th (since 2005-2006)
  • Blocked shots: 581/6th (since 2005-2006)
  • Times scored first goal of game: 42/4th

Backstrom’s career with the Caps is not over, though.  Last January, he signed a five-year/$46 million extension that keeps him in the fold through the 2024-2025 season.  By the time that contract is up, he will likely become one of the few 1,200 games/1,200 points players in NHL history (there are currently 38 such players, 32 of whom are in the Hockey Hall of Fame).

Between now and then, Backstrom is in a bit of a nether world of his career.  His best, or at least his most statistically productive days, are probably behind him.  But he remains a creative, industrious player who slots in either the first or second line center position, who remains productive (fifth in total points over the last five seasons, seventh in power play points, 22nd in points per game (of 529 players with minimum: 200 games).

Fearless’ Take…

Nicklas Backstrom remains one of the most consistent players in the league.  Since he entered the league in 2007-2008, he is one of 15 players to appear in at least 500 games and average 0.90 points per game (0.97).  He is one of 27 players to play in at least 250 games over the last five seasons and do so (0.94).

As a first or second line center, he has scoring responsibilities, and when they are met, the Caps are successful.  This season, Washington was 26-10-3 when Backstrom recorded a point, 9-9-4 when he did not.  His personal puck possession numbers were good, posting a 52.5 shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5, his best since posting a 52.9 percent in 2015-2016.

Backstrom also had consistent output over the course of the season.  Except for his third ten-game segment, when he lost seven games to injury, he recorded between seven and eleven points per ten-game segment.  And, in no segment, including that third ten-game segment, did he fail to record a power play point.  One of the stranger points of consistency was his shots on goal.  Taking away that third ten-game segment, in which he had seven shots in three games, he recorded between 20 and 24 shots in the five segments before finishing the season with 14 shots in his last nine games.  As it was, his season shots on goal continued a mid-career trend.  His shots on goal per game have increased in each of the five seasons ,from 1.72 per game in 2015-2016 to 2.16 this season.

Cheerless’ Take…

If you look close enough, you can see the cracks starting to appear in Nicklas Backstrom’s production.  From 2011-2012 through 2016-2017, Backstrom posted 405 points in 411 games (0.99 per game) and never average less than 0.93 points per game in any single season.  Over the last three seasons, he has 199 points in 222 games (0.90 per game) and hit 0.93 points per game once (in 2018-2019; he was under 0.90 points per game in the other two seasons).  And, after four consecutive 20-plus goal seasons, averaging 0.27 goals per game, he posted 12 goals in 61 games this season, 0.20 goals per game.

These are not big drop-offs, and the recent change might be explained away in part to injury and a changing role in which Backstrom seems to alternate between first and second line center.  But while they’re not big fissures (like that word, Fearless), it’s like I said…cracks.

Odd Backstrom Fact… There have been 39 players in Capitals history to take at least one penalty shot.  But Nicklas Backstrom has played in 956 regular season games over 13 seasons and has never taken one.

Odd Backstrom Fact II… The Caps were 6-1-1 in games Backstrom missed this season.

Odd Backstrom Fact III… 27 points at home, 27 points on the road this season.

Game to Remember… December 20, 2019.  It is a rare thing when two superstars can share a milestone moment.  Rarer still when that moment is precisely a product of their sharing time in competition.  This was the case in late December when the Capitals and the New Jersey Devils met in New Jersey to face the Devils.  It was on that night that Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin played their 900th game together as Capital teammates.  It was a night when Ovechkin, even in posting a goal and an assist, would yield the spotlight to Backstrom.

After the Devils opened the scoring on a Kyle Palmieri goal four minutes into the game, Backstrom collected a bump pass from Tom Wilson in the neutral zone and skated down the middle of the ice.  Backing two defenders into their zone, Backstrom gained the blue line and fed the puck off to Ovechkin on his right.  Ovechkin took one step up and wristed a shot from the top of the right wing circle that beat goalie Mackenzie Blackwood on the blocker side to tie the game.  Just 70 seconds later the Caps had the lead.  Tom Wilson outdueled Sami Vatanen for the puck out of the corner to Blackwood’s right and fed it to John Carlson inside the offensive blue line.  Carlson snapped a shot at the net, and Backstrom redirected it out of mid-air past Blackwood’s glove, and it was 2-1, Caps.  Blake Coleman tied the game for the Devils just over four minutes into the second period, but Backstrom put the Caps in front for good just before the second intermission.  Walking the puck out of the left wing corner, he found Dmitry Orlov inching down from the blue line.  Orlov passed on the shot and opted to feed the puck back to Backstrom slicing to the net.  Backstrom redirected the shot past Blackwood, and it was 3-2, Capitals.  Backstrom assisted on a Carlson goal 42 seconds into the third period to compete a four-point night as the Caps rolled to a 6-3 win.  It was the 23rd four-point game of Backstrom’s career.

Game to Forget… March 4, 2020.  Nicklas Backtrom has never had much of a problem being productive against the Philadelphia Flyers.  In 48 career games against the Flyers heading into their March 4th matchup in Washington, Backstrom was 19-36-55, plus-12.  His 49th career game against Philadelphia was not one for the scrapbook.  He skated just 15:19, his third-lowest ice time log for the season, managed two shots on goal, did not record a point, had neither a hit nor a blocked shot, and had a minus-3 rating (tied for his worst for the season) in a 5-2 Caps loss.

Postseason… Given that the Caps went 2-6 in the postseason (round robin and first round series against the New York Islanders), it is no surprise that Nicklas Backstrom did not have a memorable experience.  Worse, it was interrupted by injury when he was blindsided by the Islanders’ Anders Lee after attempting a pass in Game 1 of the first round series against the Isles.  Backstrom returned for Game 5, but it was not enough for the Caps to stave off elimination.  He dressed for five of the eight postseason games and posted a lone assist, seven shots on goal, a 38.7 percent faceoff winning percentage (the worst of his postseason career) and a minus-2 rating.

Looking ahead…

Next season, Backstrom will enter the first year of a five-year/$46 million contract extension that includes a no-movement clause for the first three seasons and a modified no-movement clause for the last two seasons (source:  He is one of four players signed through the 2024-2025 season (Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson are the others), a number that will likely increase by one when Alex Ovechkin and the club come to terms on an extension.  Kuznetsov, at 27, is the only one of this quintet currently under the age of 30, so this – including Backstrom – is, and will be an aging core for whom the window of being an elite Stanley Cup challenger is closing. 

In this space last season, we opined that Backstrom would be “a player in whom one can have confidence that he will continue to be a durable, 70-point or more player.” With 54 points in 61 games this season, he produced at a 73-point pace per 82 games.  But his goal scoring was down, largely the product of his shooting percentage falling under 10 percent (9.1) for the first time since 2013-2014 and his lowest since he posted an 8.9 shooting percentage in 2010-2011.  If Backstrom can restore some of that shooting efficiency, he should be a good bet to continue being a 70-point player.  But there are those “cracks” to consider.

In the end…

One cannot help but think Nicklas Backstrom is now entering the end-game of his career.  One could envision the contract about to become active will be his last with the club (he would be 37 when it expires).  But given the lack of depth at center in the Caps’ organization, he is also likely to be the first or second line center well into this contract, if not for entire length of it.  The Caps’ chances to compete for another Stanley Cup will depend in large part on Backstrom’s ability to maintain the consistency he has displayed over the length of his career to date. 

Grade: B

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2020 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Washington Capitals (41-20-8)
New York Islanders (35-23-10)

Then and Now I

Accounting for the shortened regular season (69 games instead of 82), this year’s version of the Caps look a lot like last year’s version, with two notable exceptions.  First, the penalty kill was much better overall for the Caps, an improvement of almost four percentage points and 18 places in the rankings.  This comes with a caveat, though.  In 49 games leading up to the All-Star Game/bye break the Caps ranked second in the league with an 84.2 percent penalty kill.  In 20 games after the break, the Caps ranked 21st with a 78.6 percent PK.  The Caps rebounded with a perfect penalty kill in the round robin phase, skating off all eight shorthanded situations they faced, one of three teams (Toronto and Pittsburgh being the others, go figure) to have perfect penalty kills in the preliminary phase of the postseason.

The other area is in shot attempts at even strength.  Last season, the Caps were under water (49.04 percent) in shot attempts-for percentage at evens and ranked 24th in the league in that statistic.  This season they jumped almost three percentage points (to 51.60 percent) and ten spots in the rankings (to eighth).  But again, that caveat applies.  Unlike the penalty kill, though, the Caps maintained a certain consistency in this area pre-break (51.9 percent) and post break (50.8 percent).  What was, and remains disturbing, though, is that the Caps ranked second to last among the 24 teams in the preliminary round of the postseason at 42.4 percent.

Then and Now II

These teams have a long history of meeting one another in the postseason, although the better term might be “ancient,” given that the teams have met in the playoffs only once since 1993.  This is the eighth meeting in the playoffs between the teams with previous results as follows:
  • 1983: Islanders won series, 3-1
  • 1984: Islanders won series, 4-1
  • 1985: Islanders won series, 3-2
  • 1986: Capitals won series, 3-0
  • 1987: Islanders won series, 4-3
  • 1993: Islanders won series, 4-2
  • 2015: Capitals won series, 4-3

In 37 games, the Caps are 16-21 against the Islanders, 3-6 in overtime, including perhaps the most famous overtime in Capitals history, the “Easter Epic” of Game 7 in 1987. 

This season, the Caps split the four-game series with the Islanders, each team splitting games on the other’s rink.  The thing that stands out, though, is that the team scoring first won each game.

How Caps of you to notice…

In 37 all-time postseason games against the Islanders, the Caps held the Isles without a power play goal 24 times.  The Caps’ record in those games: 10-14.  Sixteen times they scored a power play goal of their own.  Their record: 6-10. 

How Caps of you to notice II…

In the four games this season between the clubs, the Caps did not allow the Islanders a third period goal.  On the other hand, the Caps recorded five third period goals against the Isles.  All of them came in the same game, turning a 4-1 deficit into a 6-4 win on January 18th on Long Island.

Never Ever…Again

An oldie, but a goody… We’re still waiting on the first four-game sweep by the Caps in a seven-game series.  The Caps do have a three-game sweep of the Islanders in their history, though, but that was way back in 1986, one of two three-game sweeps in a best-of-five series in team history (the other against Philadelphia in 1984).

The Magic Number

14.  When these teams last met in the postseason, in 2015, the Caps shut the Islanders out on all 14 power plays New York had in the series.  It didn’t hurt that in each of the last five games, the Caps had two or fewer shorthanded situations to face.

The Cast of Skaters

John Carlson set a career high in points (75).  Jakub Vrana posted a career high 25 goals.  Tom Wilson was on a pace to set a career high in goals, finishing with 21, just one short of the 22 he posted last season.  Alex Ovechkin was on a pace to finish with the second-highest goal total of his career (a 57-goal pace), but with 22 goals in his last 22 regular season games, hitting 60 for the second time in his career was not out of the question.  Nicklas Backstrom was on pace to finish with his seventh straight season with 65 or more points.  Garnet Hathaway was on pace to finish tied with or topping his career high in goals (11 in 2018-2019).  Nic Dowd was on a pace to set a career high in goals (nine). Lars Eller was on a pace to set a career high in goals (19). 

See a pattern?  This Caps team was something of an underrated team with respect to its offensive balance.  Rare is the instance when so many players post or threaten to post career highs in offensive categories.  Their 3.42 goals per game average is their second best since their juggernaut year of 2009-2010, when they averaged 3.82 goals per game.

The Caps did not have quite the same balance against the Islanders in their four-game series.  Of 21 skaters to dress for at least one game in the series, eight posted goals (led by Alex Ovechkin with three), and 14 recorded points.  T.J. Oshie was the only player to score a power play goal, posting two.  Among the defensemen, John Carlson posted the only goal by the blueliners and led the group with five points against the Isles.  Here is more detail on the skaters for both the Caps and the Isles in this year’s season series:

Working with a net

With the injury to Ilya Samsonov putting him on the shelf until next season, any goalie controversy has dissipated.  It is Braden Holtby’s net for the postseason.  Holtby can become the first goalie in franchise history to post 50 playoff wins with his first win in this series.  He is already the franchise leader in postseason games played (92), games started (91), minutes (5,712), shutouts (seven), and even goalie scoring (three points, all assists).  No goalie in Caps history appearing in five or more games has a better postseason save percentage than Holtby (.928) or goals against average (2.09).

Since Holtby came into the league in 2010-2011, only Tim Thomas and Jake Allen had better goals against averages than Holtby (2.04 for each; minimum: 1,000 minutes), and he ranks fifth in save percentage.  Holtby also is tied for third among this group in shutouts.  Only Corey Crawford (51) has more wins in that span of postseason games than Holtby (49).  He goes into this series having been one of the few bright spots in the preliminary phase for the Caps, posting a 1.98 goals against average and a 9.25 save percentage.

On the other side, the Caps will likely face an old teammate, although long removed by this stage of his career.  Semyon Varlamov was taken by the Caps with the 23rd overall pick of the 2006 Entry Draft, the third goalie taken (Jonathan Bernier was taken 11th, and Riku Helenius was taken 15th) and selected on pick after the Philadelphia Flyers took Claude Giroux.  He has assembled a rather impressive resume over his 12-year career, on the brink of playing in his 500th regular season game in the NHL (he has 493 appearances, 16th in the league since he entered in 2008-2009).  He has 232 career wins (21st since he entered the league) and 21 shutouts (tied for 21st).  His underlying numbers, however, are a bit less impressive.  Of 58 goalies with at least 10,000 minutes played since he came into the league, Varlamov ranks 42nd in goals against average (2.67), and 23rd in save percentage (.915).  Until this season, his playoff numbers were not particularly noteworthy (13-13, 2.57, .915), but in the preliminary round just completed against Florida, he was 3-1, 1.77, .932.

Who’s Hot ‘n’ Not?

For the Capitals over the last ten games of the regular season…
  • Alex Ovechkin posted eight goals; he also led the team with ten points.
  • Nicklas Backstrom recorded eight assists.
  • In an odd circumstance, the Caps had three players with game winning goals, all right wingers.  Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, and Richard Panik had one apiece.
  • Wilson led the team with 39 credited hits; John Carlson led the team with 19 blocked shots.
  • Carlson was 0-for-25 shooting, the most shots on goal over the ten games without a goal.
  • Brenden Dillon did not record a point, and he is still looking for his first point as a Capital.

For the Islanders over the last ten games of the regular season…
  • Jordan Eberle led the Islanders with six goals.
  • Mathew Barzal posted 11 assists and led the team with 12 points.
  • Eberle and Anders Lee had the only game winning goals in the 10 game stretch.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the only forward to play in all ten games and fail to record a goal.
  • Of the seven defensemen to dress over this span of games, Johnny Boychuk (seven games) and Scott Mayfield (ten games) failed to record a point.
  • Matt Martin led the team with 39 credited hits; Josh Bailey had two.  Ryan Pulock led the team with 31 blocked shots.

Looks at Rooks

This was not a season for rookie breakthroughs with the Caps. Only three rookies dressed for games, and only for a total of 15 games at that.  None of the trio of Martin Fehervary (six games), Tyler Lewington (six games), or Beck Malenstyn (three games) scored a goal, and only Fehervary had an assist.  With John Carlson’s status for the series still in some doubt, Fehervary (who played one game in the round robin) could get a sweater.  He is almost certainly the only rookie who will dress among the skaters.  In goal, Ilya Samsonov’s fine rookie season (16-6-2, 2.55, .913, one shutout) will not extend to the postseason due to injury.  If a rookie gets the call, it would be Vitek Vanecek, who has yet to make an appearance in the NHL.  With the Hershey Bears this season, he was 19-10-1, 2.26, .917, with two shutouts.

On the other hand, the Islanders dressed four rookie skaters this season.  Defenseman Noah Dobson, the 12th overall pick of the 2018 Entry Draft, was the leader in games played (34) and posted a scoring line of 1-6-7, minus-1.  Forward Kieffer Bellows (drafted 19th overall in the 2016 Entry Draft) posted two goals and an assist in eight games with the Isles, while forwards Otto Koivula (fourth round pick in 2016) and Oliver Wahlstrom (11th overall pick in 2018) were held without a point in 12 and nine games, respectively.  No rookie appeared for the Islanders in their elimination round series against Florida.

Special Considerations

“Special” would not describe special teams for either the Capitals or the Islanders for the most part.  At the high level, the Caps were a top-ten team in special teams index (power play plus penalty kill percentages), ranking tenth at 102.0.  That was fueled by a sixth-ranked penalty kill (82.6 percent), but as noted above, even the penalty kill deteriorated quite a bit after the All-Star Game/bye break, ranking 21st in the league with a 78.6 percent penalty kill over 20 games.

The power play never seemed to live up to the potential for the Caps this season, given the talent it employs.  It started well, with a fifth-ranked unit in October (25.5 percent), but the air leaked out of the balloon, as the power play results by month indicate:
  • November: 25.0 percent/6th
  • December 12.5 percent/29th
  • January: 18.2 percent/21st
  • February: 17.7 percent/19th
  • March: 9.1 percent/T-27th

Part of the issue was Alex Ovechkin scoring power play goals at a diminished pace.  His 13 goals in 68 games tied for the second-lowest season total of power play goals of his career (he had seven in 79 games in 2010-2011). He was on a pace to finish with 15, which would have ranked 12th among his 15 NHL seasons.  T.J. Oshie also finished in double digits in power play goals (10), one short of his career high (11, set in 2015-2016 with the Caps), but seven other Caps combined for a total of only 19 power play goals.  The result was a power play that finished under 20 percent for a season (19.4 percent) for the first time since 2011-2012 (16.7 percent) and perhaps of more concern continues a downward trend in efficiency:
  • 2016-2017: 23.1
  • 2017-2018: 22.5
  • 2018-2019: 20.8
  • 2019-2020: 19.4

The Caps’ penalty kill finished the season highly ranked, but that fade over the last 20 games is a concern.  On the other hand, they were one of three teams with a perfect penalty kill record in the preliminary phase of the post season (8-for-8).  Those eight shorthanded situations faced were a good sign, to a point.  The blemish there was having to face the Flyers six times while shorthanded.  But will that matter?  In 17 games in which the Caps faced five or more shorthanded situations in the regular season, they were 80-for-95 (84.2 percent), a fine kill rate, and they has a win-loss record of 10-5-2.  They key, unsurprisingly, is shutting opponents down, however many opportunities they get.  The Caps 21-10-4 in the 35 games win which they did not allow a power play goal, 17-6-3 in the 26 games in which they allowed one power play goal, and they were 3-4-1 when allowing two power play goals (they did not allow more in any game this season).

On the other side, the Islanders were not very special on either side of special teams.  Their special teams index of 98.0 ranked 23rd in the league and was the product of a poor power play and a mediocre penalty kill.

Their power play (17.3 percent) ranked 24th in the league, which is not especially surprising given the history of the Islander penalty kill.  Since 2005-2006, the Islanders finished a season over 20 percent on the power play only once (23.2 percent in 2017-2018).  Over that time they have averaged 17.4 percent, almost exactly where they finished the 2019-2020 season.  While this year’s Islander power play had a measure of balance – 12 different players recorded power play goals – they lacked a go-to power play finisher.  No Islander had as many as five power play goals.  Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle tied for the team lead with four apiece.

The penalty kill was better, but not elite by any means.  But again, this is entirely consistent with recent Islander history.  Their 80.6 penalty kill rate was the sixth best they posted in the last 15 seasons.  It is also close to their aggregate penalty kill over those last 15 seasons (80.0 percent).

What the Islanders bring on the penalty kill is recent success, but no too recent.  They finished the post All-Star Game break with the ninth-best penalty kill in the league (84.6 percent).  Their return to the ice for the elimination round series against Florida was not as successful.  They were 10-for-14 on the PK, the 71.4 percent kill rate tied for 21st among the 24 teams participating in the preliminary phase.

One thing the Islanders were able to avoid, testimony to their team discipline, were games with high penalty kill volumes.  Only eight times in the regular season did the Islanders face at least five shorthanded situations.  But it exposed weaknesses when they did.  They allowed power play goals in each of those eight games and went 30-for-42 (71.4 percent), posting a record of 4-3-1.  The odd thing about their penalty kill is that five times this season they did not have a shorthanded situation to face.  They lost all five games (0-4-1).

Behind the Bench

Can’t say these coaches are unfamiliar with each other.  Todd Reirden spent four years as an assistant to Barry Trotz in Washington, culminating in a Stanley Cup, before Trotz went to Long Island, and Reirden took over as head coach of the Caps.

There is, however, quite a gap in experience.  Trotz is third on the all-time list of regular season games coached in the NHL (1,674), trailing only Joel Quenneville (1,705) and Scotty Bowman (2,141).  He is 14th all-time in postseason games coached (125) and will pass Glen Sather (127) for 13th place in this series.  He is one of 53 coaches in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup.

On the other side, Reirden has 151 regular season games of head coaching experience (all with the Caps) and only ten games of postseason experience, including the round robin phase of this postseason just completed.

With Trotz, there is no mystery.  His teams will be structured, disciplined, attentive in the defensive end of the ice, responsible.  You’re not going to see fireworks in an Islander game.  The Islanders averaged a total of 5.57 goals scored (their own and their opponents’) per game.  Only four teams featured less total scoring (Los Angeles: 5.52; Arizona: 5.32; Columbus: 5.18; and Dallas: 5.10).  Only nine times in 68 games did the Isles post five or more goals (not including Gimmick goals), one of those against the Caps.  They are not a score-in-bunches team.  On the other hand, they held opponents to one or no goals 14 times, winning 13 of those instances.  Looking at the other side of things, the Isles allowed five or more goals nine times this season and lost them all (0-8-1).  Trotz’ teams, when successful, are the constrictor that squeezes, squeezes, and squeezes, and eventually the opponent succumbs.

On the other hand, it is difficult, or perhaps too early, to pigeon-hole Reirden into a category.  He was successful in molding the defense when he was an assistant, but at the top of the food chain and with as much offensive talent as he has on the roster, his governing philosophy is a bit harder to identify.  “Wide Open” might be a label to use.  The Caps ranked third in the league this season in total goals scored, for and against (6.49).  Last year, they ranked seventh (6.36).  Washington is one of only three teams in the league to average scoring and allowing at least three goals per game in each of the last two seasons (Florida and Toronto are the others).  Winning when scoring has been relatively easy for the Caps this season (19-1-1 when scoring five or more goals), a lot less so when they don’t (5-12-3 when scoring two or fewer goals, not including Gimmick goals).  Wild west shootouts don’t scare this team; tight, low scoring games are more of a concern.

The Caps will win if…

They get out to leads and force the Islanders out of their comfort zone.  Early pressure on goalie Semyon Varlamov, both in terms of shots and making him make plays with the puck, could allow the Caps to do just that.  The Caps have done a fine job this season of shutting down the Islanders late.  This will have to continue in order to be successful.

The Islanders will win if…

The game is played at, by hockey standards, a glacial pace.  Frustrating Caps break outs (and the Caps getting frustrated over it), denying easy entries on power plays, lots of whistles.  If this is the style of game played, the Islanders will be very happy.

In the end…

There might not be an opening round series than this one that pits two entirely different styles against one another.  The Islanders win with structure and discipline.  In that sense, they are one-dimensional; they can only win that way on a reliable basis over a series.  If the game gets away from them, they lack the capacity for big comebacks.  The Caps have more skill up front, on the blue line, and are more consistent in goal.  They can win “playing big,” pounding a team into submission, they can win with top-six skill, they can win with Braden Holtby playing like he did in the round robin.  They have more weapons, more ways to win.

Caps in six