Here it is…the series that will likely determine who wins the MassMutual Division regular-season crown has officially begun.
The Islanders hosted the Capitals on Thursday night in Uniondale and entered the matchup with both teams sporting identical records of 29-13-4. So, with only 10-games remaining (including this one) and two more such games on the docket in the next five days, it certainly hurt the Islanders to lose the series opener in the shootout 1-0.
Semyon Varlamov was strong throughout the game and was credited with a 28-save shutout, but his teammates couldn’t get him any goal-support against Ilya Samsonov, who was credited with a 26-save shutout of his own. Eventually, these two evenly matched teams went all the way to the third-round of the shootout before a winner was determined courtesy of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Let me clarify something, while the Islanders are hardly in any danger of missing the playoffs, the team, whether it wants to admit it or not, should be focusing on securing the best possible first-round matchup. And along with the best possible matchup, it’s always a boost to have home-ice advantage as much as possible.
In fact, even in this restricted fan season, the Islanders are still an NHL-best 19-2-3 at Nassau Coliseum, while being a fairly mediocre 10-11-2 on the road. Those are highly important splits as the Isles turn one eye towards the playoffs.
Barring a massive collapse by the Bruins, the Boys from Long Island will face either the Penguins or Bruins in the opening-round of the playoffs. Heck, they could even face the Capitals in the opening-round if Pittsburgh overtakes both New York and Washington for the top spot.
With all that in mind, here are the Isles splits against each of their three potential first-round opponents this season:
Vs. Capitals: 2-0-1 at home and 0-3-0 on the road.
Vs. Penguins: 3-0-1 at home and 0-4-0 on the road.
Vs. Bruins: 4-0-0 at home and 1-2-0 on the road.
What does all of that mean? It means that if the Nassaumen want to improve their odds of advancing in the playoffs while pursuing Lord Stanley’s Cup, they need to play at Nassau Coliseum as much as possible.
So, while the two-seed will provide home-ice advantage in Round One, there’s no guarantee for Round Two or beyond. Only the one-seed is an automatic to provide home-ice advantage through the divisional rounds of the playoffs (rounds one and two).
Now, getting to the game at hand.
The Isles came out flying, skating like they did against the Rangers in the third period on Tuesday night. Washington simply could not keep up with the Islanders, who had shuffled their lineup to re-insert Cal Clutterbuck, while scratching Travis Zajac and Oliver Wahlstrom.
Even with the Capitals earning a power-play in the opening period, the Boys from Long Island kept the visitors in check and outshot them 15-4 through 20-minutes. If not for Ilya Samsonov’s brilliant goaltending, Washington would have been facing a multi-goal deficit.
Mathew Barzal in particular played better in the first period than he has in several games. Perhaps it was being reunited with Uncle Leo (Leo Komarov) on his wing that sparked the young superstar? Or maybe it was the law of averages shifting back into his favor? Either way, an engaged and flying Barzal is good news for the Isles and bad news for the opponents.
The second period saw the Capitals flip the script on the Islanders, but let’s be honest, we all knew that was coming. After all, the Isles have been struck by some mysterious plague this season that decrees the second period is consistently a troublesome period for the team.
Varlamov was under siege early in the period and eventually made 14-saves in the period, while his teammates mustered only seven shots on goal against Samsonov. In addition to the tables being turned, the Isles gave Washington two more power-plays, although the high-sticking call against Barzal was clearly a mistake as his stick was lifted by one of the Capitals. But hey, the Referees know what they’re doing, right?
Coming into the game, Washington was 6-for-12 on the power-play against the Islanders this season. However, through 40-minutes and three penalties, the Nassaumen managed to keep the Capitals off the board and headed to the third period with the scoreboard reading 0-0.
The third period was nothing to write home about for the Boys from Long Island as they were held to just three shots on goal; even though they did earn two power-plays. However, the Isles power-play woes continued and they could not find a way to beat Samsonov, which meant this game was headed to overtime with each team securing at least one point.
The battle was on in search of that all important second point and the Islanders controlled the puck for almost the entire overtime period. The Athletic’s Arthur Staple estimated the Isles controlled the puck for 4:35 of the five-minutes. However, the Nassaumen only mustered one shot on goal and also gave up just a single shot on goal; neither of which found the back of the net.
So, the hockey portion of the evening was complete and the skills contest was brought on to determine a winner.
Jordan Eberle and T.J. Oshie were both turned aside in round-one while Anthony Beauvillier and Nicklas Backstrom each scored in round-two to send the shootout to its third-round tied at a goal apiece.
Brock Nelson went for the Islanders and shot the puck wide after appearing to briefly lose control of the rubber disc. That opened the door for Kuznetsov, who beat Varlamov blocker side to give the Capitals the 1-0 win.
The loss stings for sure and it actually dropped the Islanders to third in the division because of the ROW (regulation and overtime wins) tie-breaker with Pittsburgh, who is still hanging in the race for the top spot.
Now they’ll do it all over again Saturday night.
The Isles went 0-for-2 on the power-play to bring their season tally to 20-for-119…Cal Clutterbuck tagged back in while Travis Zajac took a seat…Oliver Wahlstrom was once again a healthy scratch…Semyon Varlamov was credited with his fifth shutout of the season…The Isles went 3-for-3 on the penalty-kill.
Saturday April 24th Islanders vs Capitals at Nassau Coliseum at 7pm(EST).