clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals: 5 Themes from playoff Game 1

Young stars shine, goaltending and officiating was an afterthought, and "structure" was the word of the night.

Battle level!
Battle level!
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We covered the game details and turning points of the New York Islanders' 4-1 Game 1 win over the Washington Capitals in the earlier post. Now here are some themes -- narratives if you will -- and underlying currents that were noticeable in Game 1 and could become a thing as the series goes on.

"The story" of any series is quite subjective and turns on, well, the sequence of things: A guy who scores two game-winning goals but goes scoreless in the other five games is still a "clutch" or at least memorable hero.

1. Youth Rising

When he was selected early in the 2011 draft, people immediately dreamed of seeing Ryan Strome lining up next to John Tavares. Strome's goal was assisted by a faceoff win, and his old Bridgeport running mate Brock Nelson opened scoring. Nelson also made a very smart play on his second goal to rush to break up an icing and time his arrival for depositing the puck into the empty net. Strome wasn't on the squad in 2013, and Nelson only appeared in Game 6.

After starting the season incredibly hot -- goals were literally bouncing in off his leg -- Nelson's had his scoring slumps this season, in part because his net-front minutes on the power play were taken over by Anders Lee, who promptly took off. But all three of these occasional members of the "Kid Line" have been key this season, and none were on the last Islanders playoff squad.

2. Goaltending: Adventures

Among the series "X factors," Braden Holtby's threat to steal a few games of a series is one in the Capitals' favor. But Jaroslav Halak has been there before too, and his calm demeanor is good for any playoff team.

Ironic, then, that Holtby was just average in Game 1, while Halak was classically steady (when in the net) but also adventurous enough that his forays out of the net could have made the game end differently. (That includes the painful Matt Martin goal-saving shot block pictured above.) Even Marcus Johansson's goal, though it came off a quick pass and some Isles coverage mistakes, began with Halak racing to get back in the net.

Goaltending did not really turn Game 1 either way. But it's the playoffs, so it will turn a game or three in this series, and it will be monitored closely.

3. Officiating...Officiating?

Unfortunately, you never know how games will be officiated in the playoffs, other than penalties being less frequent until suddenly they aren't. Thankfully, the officiating was an afterthought tonight. The Capitals have a dangerous power play but take a lot of penalties. The Isles are great at five-on-five and would kind of prefer not to mention special teams.

The whistles were quiet in Game 1, but the first penalty was an incredibly soft holding call on Eric Fehr as he used his arm to get around Calvin de Haan.

Jason Chimera took a really dumb roughing penalty at the second-period buzzer (and added another at the end of the game), trying to goad some retaliation from the Isles and getting burned after taking one final, pointless slug at Thomas Hickey. That not-always-called penalty ("Boys will be boys amirite?") was just the third of the game.

Michael Grabner was tagged for interference early in the second. Cal Clutterbuck got an automatic when he high-sticked Joel Ward just when the fourth-line was executing its grind-the-clock-dead act to perfection. That was it.

4. Size vs. Speed

The Capitals know they're bigger, not faster, than the Islanders, whose defensive corps overall could be called "undersized," especially the pairing of Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky. The Capitals took every opportunity to be physical with the latter two. If it has any effect, it will be in the long run: The theory of wearing down players over the course of a seven-game series.

Other moments of "line 'em up and hit 'em" included Matt Niskanen on Ryan Strome -- not long after Strome had scored a go-ahead goal -- and Alex Ovechkin on whoever he could find looking vulnerable or flat-footed.

Part of this contrast is roster necessity, but it's also a reflection of the new era in Washington, where Barry Trotz comes from a history of trudge-it-out warfare with Nashville in the Central Division. The Isles are generally known for their speed and quick puck movement, something that isn't obvious based on how much Jack Capuano talks about battlin'.

5. 'Structure'

Speaking of which, Capuano talks so much about "structure" that some fans get oddly turned off. But when the Isles are disciplined about "playing the way we need to play" (another Capuano favorite), it works. It produces outshooting scenarios. It utilizes smart pinches and good positioning to force turnovers.

The Isles forced turnovers left and right during the first half of the game, and Pierre McGuire had one of his coachgasms in his "between the glass" role for NBC where he interviewed Capuano (who referenced "structure," of course) and admired the "surgical" way the Isles played a careful, disciplined, but assertive road game that helped diffuse the crowd.

(People overrate coaching -- and we're not going to act like this game turned on that variable -- but it is rare to ever hear someone out-"structure" nor out-trap Trotz, who was born with a birthmark in the shape of an X and O. But the Isles structured their way to a lead and then trapped away to protect it.)

Bonus Theme: Red Not Rocked

Speaking of diffusing the crowd: Compared to the "Rock the Red" heyday, it was an startlingly quiet atmosphere at the [telco reconstructed monopoly of some sort] Center, especially compared (unfairly) to what we'll expect from Nassau Coliseum's final playoff run. Wednesday night, the home team just never got off the ground, and their lone goal came a minute before a lengthy intermission break.

In-game commentators -- okay, McGuire -- said the Caps looked like they were playing nervous early on. Maybe so, but the crowd sounded almost nervous too, almost like the favorite/home ice thing is a crown not welcomed. Did the team and/or crowd feed off each other in a feedback loop of nerves?

Meh, maybe it was just a hockey game. The Isles having the better of play, the home team managing only one goal, and the Isles getting a big enough lead to squeeze the life out of the game is more likely what kept the crowd quiet. The Caps score on that third-period power play, and the crowd is amped instead of booing in the final seconds.

By the end, you heard the visiting Isles fans over the broadcast.

Yes, not a bad start.