John Tavares (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
New York Islanders GM Garth Snow’s master plan to make his club competitive again is already showing signs of working, but they’re in for a tough test against Barry Trotz’s Washington Capitals. Can Alex Ovechkin lead his squad past John Tavares and the Isles, or will New York's new look blueline stop Washington?
HOW THEY WIN
CAPITALS: Scoring was never a problem for the Caps. Keeping the puck out of their net was. But new coach Barry Trotz and his beefed-up blueline (enter Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen over the summer) are producing results. Washington is now a top-10 team defensively, jumping up from the bottom third last year. The team's possession numbers are better as well, so Trotz's defensive rep pays dividends at both ends of the ice. In Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have one of the most terrifying twosomes, but more weapons have been added, including young Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov and trade deadline acquisition Curtis Glencross. The power play is still deadly, and with multiple D-man options (John Carlson and Mike Green being the most prominent), opponents don't get a rest if the top unit fails to convert. Goalie Braden Holtby has also been better than ever.
ISLANDERS: The Islanders, one of the best possession teams in the NHL, can head into the playoffs confident knowing the past three Stanley Cup winners have all ranked top-three in unblocked shot attempts (USAT). When the Isles are on their game, they're jumping into passing routes and rushing up the ice or breaking up enemy incursions with active sticks. In captain John Tavares, New York has a potential Hart Trophy winner, and depth on Long Island hasn't been this good in decades. The squad even has what has become known as the “best fourth line in hockey” in Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, all swift shift disturbers who bang, crash and disrupt. On the back end, the addition of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy – Cup winners with Boston and Chicago – has brought leadership and skill to a unit that always seemed to be a guy short in the past.
HOW THEY LOSE
CAPITALS: The pre-Trotz, loosey-goosey Capitals sometimes show up and let the enemy waltz through the offensive zone uninhibited. For a team that hasn't won many playoff series lately, that must be rectified quickly. When the Caps get down, they have a difficult time coming back, particularly if they trail after the first period. These types of scenarios become more suffocating in the playoffs. An ability to mount a counter-attack needs to shine through. The penalty kill unit runs middle-of-the-pack and Washington takes more penalties than most playoff-bound teams, so the combination is troubling. Ultimately, even with the newfound depth, this team needs to be led on several levels by Ovechkin, who has ranged from brilliant (2009) to completely ineffective (2013) in previous post-season forays. Which 'Ovie' shows up this time?
ISLANDERS: When the Islanders take it easy, big holes are torn open. The defensemen get beaten wide too often, leaving the goaltenders to deal with the consequences. Speaking of netminding, it's been five years since Jaroslav Halak became a household name by lifting the Montreal Canadiens to the conference final, stoning Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin along the way. Other than those 18 mostly magical games, Halak has played just 201 minutes of NHL playoff hockey. Backup Michal Neuvirth is even greener, with just nine games four years ago in Washington. If Halak can't summon his past wizardry, the Isles will be dead in the water. The Islanders don't take many penalties, and it's for the best. They have one of the league's worst kill rates. Given how little playoff experience some of their younger players have, that's not a good trend to maintain when the games get more pressure-packed.
GOALIE ZONE by Jamie McLennan
CAPITALS: Braden Holtby has been absolutely outstanding for the Capitals, and I think the biggest adjustment he's made this year is having a new goaltender coach, Mitch Korn, who is a genius. Mitch has gotten Holtby to play much more efficiently. Holtby has really good athleticism, and you saw that last season as he was moving all over the ice. But under Mitch, he uses that athleticism much more judiciously, and his positioning is a lot stronger this season. For me, he and Cory Schneider of the Devils are the two goalies who've taken huge steps this season.
ISLANDERS: Even though Jaroslav Halak has proven himself in the playoffs, I still think there are some questions. He's not a big goalie, and that's the main knock on him. Some goalies are 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, and they wear it in goal, but when Jaro gets into trouble, he looks his size (5-foot-11). It may not seem like much, but when Halak plays six inches deeper, you see net. He has to play more aggressively at the top to look big and to take a lot of net away. The minute he gets deeper, he looks like a smaller goalie.
CAPITALS: Don't overthink things with superstar Alex Ovechkin. Sure, his Capitals aren't among the Stanley Cup favorites, but 'Ovie' can still contribute mammoth offensive totals in a round or two. He's too good to shy away from on playoff draft day. And coach Barry Trotz has the Caps playing good enough two-way hockey to pull an upset.
ISLANDERS: Kyle Okposo epitomizes the player whose fantasy value is masked by missed time. He was almost a point-per-game scorer before his eye injury and is back on a line with John Tavares for the playoffs. Okposo can bounce back to be a big-time producer in pools. He excelled in his first career playoff action two years ago, too.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn This series will likely be one of the most exciting series of the first round and it’ll be because of Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares. Two of the league’s best offensive players going head-to-head in a high-octane battle is hockey heaven. Since 2010, Ovechkin has held the edge in their head-to-head duels, but much of that is because, until this year, the Islanders weren’t very good. Tavares and Ovechkin are even when it comes to possession relative to their respective teams, but Tavares has the upper hand in actually out-scoring the other team while on the ice. Points wise, Tavares holds the edge again at 5-on-5, but that’s because Ovechkin does most of his damage on the power play.
THN PREDICTION: Washington in six.
READ THN'S OTHER ROUND 1 PREVIEWS IN OUR STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF FEED.