Recently we took a look at the test the Capitals face when playing the Penguins in the playoffs. This piece looks at the challenge the New York Islanders and New York Rangers pose to the Caps in the postseason.
This season, it hasn’t mattered whether the Caps have played the Islanders (who are from Brooklyn), or the Rangers (from Manhattan), both New York borough opponents have played the Caps competitively and better than anyone else.
Out of their 29 regular season series this season, the only one the Capitals have lost so far came at the expense of the Islanders; they played each other five times and the Caps won only twice. The Rangers have won both encounters with the Caps so far, and two games remain. The Capitals have not lost in regulation to any other NHL team more than once. Cumulatively for 2016-17, the Caps’ record against Gotham City opponents stands at two wins and five regulation losses; including three straight losses.
The first of these three straight losses to the Islanders and Rangers came in the last week of 2016 in Brooklyn and was sloppily played by the Caps, who have subsequently tightened up their defensive play for the most part. That particular contest ended 4-3. The penultimate game, also at the Barclays Center, immediately followed the All-Star break, and the Caps faced a very motivated Islanders team that had recently named Doug Weight as their interim head coach and had achieved points in six straight games (5-0-1). The Isles, who were able to recover several loose pucks near the Capitals’ net and turn them into goals, made it seven straight with a 3-2 win. In the last of these three losses, which came just a week ago, the Capitals were playing their second game after the bye week and the second game in a back-to-back. The Caps got better as the game went along, but ultimately fell short to the Rangers, 2-1 at Madison Square Garden.
The Caps are not getting blown out when playing New York teams, but they have been slightly outplayed, losing each by a single goal in regulation. One of the differences has been that the New York teams have done a better job at marking players near their own goals and blocking more shots (45 to 35 cumulative shots) than the Capitals have. The margin of difference has not been large, but neither have the score lines and it’s been just wide enough for the Caps not to pick up any points.
What happens on Tuesday?
After Saturday’s loss to the Nashville Predators, the Capitals headed straight to the Big Apple and are there right now. In light of the Caps’ struggles to win against New York teams, there’s much more on the line Tuesday night than an average mid-week regular season match. The Capitals have a chance to reverse course with a regulation win against the Rangers and would also avert losing their second regular season series. The Rangers lost at home to the Blue Jackets on Sunday, 5-2, but many of the New York fans feel they won by losing because it aligned them with the Atlantic Division for possible initial postseason matchups.
Despite the loss to Nashville, the Caps do carry some momentum into this week. The Capitals had won two in a row before facing the ever-so tough second game away in back-to-back games played; where the Caps are now 1-5-1 (.214) this season, hardly indicative of their typical form. The Capitals are 36-7-6 (.796) this season in games that exclude the second of back-to-backs. The Caps had faced the challenge of losing three additional key players to injury — right wing T.J. Oshie and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik – who joined Andre Burakovsky sidelined with injuries. The two defensemen and Oshie could return to the ice against the Rangers.
It will be interesting to see what level of intensity the Capitals bring on Tuesday and how strong the Capitals play defensively. In games where the Caps made defense a priority, they’ve controlled the majority of them and won.
What might happen in the playoffs?
The results from the games versus the New York teams is significant, because the Caps could very well face one of, if not both of them during the playoffs. Here are some of the New York players that have stood out, especially when playing the Caps:
Thomas Greiss (G) – After uneven play from the Islanders’ two other netminders, Greiss has established himself as the starter and been critical to the Islanders’ mid-season turnaround.
Andrew Ladd (LW) – After a slow start, Ladd has started to play better and has been a particular thorn in the Caps’ side.
Alan Quine (C) – Quine has been opportunistic whenever playing the Caps.
Ryan Strome (RW) – Islanders fans expect a lot out of Strome, expectations he’s having a hard time meeting, but Strome has played much better under Weight and in the recent games against the Caps.
John Tavares (C) – The Islanders’ captain again leads the team in points, and impacts the game in many ways besides scoring and assisting on goals; he has strong chemistry with Anders Lee and Josh Bailey.
Henrik Lundqvist (G) – Perhaps the best European goalie ever to play in the NHL, Lundqvist prides himself in playing big in big games
Ryan McDonagh (D) – The Rangers’ captain has been a pro’s pro; last week, he was a difference maker at both ends of the ice and made pivotal plays in the Rangers’ win.
Rangers Third-Line – As much as the Caps have pride in their third-line, Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, and J.T. Miller have been a difference maker too for the Rangers when playing against most NHL teams (1st, 3rd & 5th in NYR goals, 1st, 3rd & 6th in NYR points, & 1st, 2nd & 3rd in NYR +/-).
Jimmy Vesey (LW) – The rookie showed his skill and speed in the first contest (he did not have as great an impact last week); he has paired well with center Derek Stepan
Mats Zuccarello (RW) – Shows a nose for the goal and netted the game winner; he has paired well with left wing Chris Kreider
Each New York team is comprised of solid starters that will pose problems if the Caps don’t bring their “A” game. A Capitals’ playoff series against the Islanders and/or the Rangers would be undoubtedly hard fought. While I have confidence that the Caps would come out victorious in either series, they must play defense first and limit mistakes in their defensive zone for this result to occur. Playing this way has been a challenge for the Capitals against the Islanders and Rangers.
The contests against New York City teams also emphasize the importance of securing home-ice advantage in the playoffs, and so winning as many games in the regular season is important. This is basically so that any (needed) seventh game in any series is played at the Verizon Center.
By Tim Foisie