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New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals: 5 themes from Isles Game 3 win

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Of matchups, goaltending, and the ebb and flow of a playoff series.

Earned.
Earned.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Islanders' Game 3 win over the Washington Capitals was at turns an impressive effort, a poetic ending, and an alarming scare. We went over the game details in the instant recap and watched (and rewatched) the invigorating final 15 seconds yesterday.

Now we can weigh what it all means for the series going forward, as we approach the first series turning point, Game 4: On Tuesday either the Isles go up 3-1 with three chances to clinch, or the Caps tie it 2-2 and the series begins anew.

1. Boychuk vs. Ovechkin

This is one matchup and storyline that will continue with the Isles on home ice again in Game 4. With the home change but without Travis Hamonic, who would the Islanders choose to match against Alex Ovechkin?

Why, Johnny Rocket himself, of course. He's arguably a better option for the job than Hamonic anyway, though you don't want the Leddy-Boychuk pairing focused on prevention when it's so good at creation.

Still, with the benefit of the home change, the Isles had Boychuk facing, and blocking, and limiting space on Ovechkin all afternoon. In fact the lone Capitals goal (by Backstrom, not Ovechkin) came after an icing when the Isles could not change to have Boychuk out there against the Caps top line.

In Newsday and also in nhl.com coverage Boychuk downplayed his performance as just part of the job...

"It's just your job," Boychuk said. "He's an excellent player, the best goal scorer in the game right now. You have to pay attention to him at all times. If you don't, you're probably going to be going home early."

"(Ovechkin) hammered it on me a couple of times, and it didn't feel very good. It's just something you have to do. You have to sacrifice your body and you have to be aware of where he is on the ice because he's deadly."

...but the coach wasn't mincing words:

"Without (Hamonic) in the lineup, it's real important," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "You take him out of your lineup, a right shot, you rely on Johnny, and he did a great job. He's a big body. He played a lot of hard minutes for us tonight. He took some big hits, he dished out some big hits. Not only did he do a good job 5-on-5, but especially on the penalty kill as well.

2. If This Was Visnovsky's Last Big Moment, A Tip O' the Hat

It fees like this is the last season for Lubomir Visnovsky, although you never know if they work something out. (During the season it was reported he is interested in coming back, but there are other forces and prospects in play.)

A player who initially didn't want to report -- or at least wanted to enforce the no-trade clause he thought he had while being dealt three times -- has taken to the Islanders and produced moments fans will always remember.

During Game 3 Vis took a (possibly inadvertent) hit to the back of the head from Troy Brouwer and stayed down on the ice. At the stoppage, he headed toward the bench, then went to the locker room.

Visnovsky took another hit, a high and deliberate one, from Alex Ovechkin at the point that sent him sprawling toward the boards. This time, rather than lying prone, he got back up and featured in the Islanders first goal, blasting his slapper to the net where it deflected in off Kyle Okposo.

The "Silver Fox" is beloved by many, and that includes his teammates.

3. The Coliseum Has a Day

Hopefully there are many more of these in 2015, but it was pretty fantastic to hear the Coliseum crowd all game long, and to have it erupt on the John Tavares winner.

Which, you know, was kind of storybook:

There was some harassment (which went viral) of visiting fans that marred the day for some, but that sadly familiar human behavior doesn't ruin what was a great afternoon for the many others who just came to, you know, enjoy some hockey rather than commit property damage and then some.

4. Goaltending

The fear for many going into the series was that Braden Holtby could steal games. He very nearly stole Game 3. Halak was no slouch himself, however, and the one goal Halak conceded was a perfect rising shot through a screen. But the Capitals were outplayed for huge stretches, and the only reason they only needed one goal to tie was because Holtby kept them in it.

Just look at the avalanche of pressure he faced in the second after the Isles grabbed a 1-0 lead:

Islanders vs. Capitals Game 3

Hockey: Sometimes it's just teams taking turns flatlining

Speaking of which...

5. Not 'Shelling.' Just Hockey.

This is evidently a controversial opinion, but the Islanders did not simply sit back with the lead. They took the lead halfway through the second period and continued to press for more. They did not "shell" in the third period due to some maniacal coaching instruction/belief in the beauty of just camping out in their own zone.

The Capitals, however, knew what was in front of them and pushed in the third period the way they pushed through much of Game 2. That entailed forcing the Isles into some icings, which only worsened the situation.

This is simply something that happens in hockey, as the incentives, and the energy, and the bounces compound for one team or the other.

Pardon for repeating myself from the post-game discussion, but player (and human) behavior can work out this way and alter a team's approach -- or the appearance of their approach -- by subtle degrees that add up:

On any given line, on any given play, all it takes is ONE miscommunication (e.g. a guy flying the zone before it’s out, not realizing the clear/outlet isn’t going through) or ONE guy making the conservative play while the other one is going more aggressive (e.g. you chipped while I expected a diagonal pass) to screw it up and make it look like the team is "shelling" under some diabolical coach instruction.

It happens -- and players know it happens -- but it's hard to collectively resist. That's why you hear post-game quotes from Boychuk (and others, always, any time this happens for any team anywhere) discussing how they just need to "not stray from their game," etc.

Notice that after the Capitals tied, the Isles took back control. Call that "relaxing" or "shelling" or "sitting back" on the Caps' part if you want, but it's just the natural oscillation that happens in hockey. In fact, you could make the argument that hockey is all about fighting that natural tendency, in the hopes of attaining that elusive, perfect, "60 minute" game.

As the excellent roundup at Japers' Rink put it:

The Caps got shellacked while the game was tied. Then, some time after the Isles' scored their first goal, they turned on the afterburners a little bit. Sound familiar? Probably because you saw the same thing happen a million times this season. The good guys were out-attempted at even strength when the game was tied 45 to 21, which is an absolute beatdown.

You know how the Caps have been really, really, really, ridiculously good-playing when scoring the first goal this year? Generally, you've gotta play well when the score is tied in order to achieve that first goal— something that through three games they've failed to do.

And that's where we are after three games of what is shaping up to be an interesting series. If the Isles play the way they did through most of Game 1 and the first 40 minutes and final six minutes (plus 15 seconds) of Game 3, they likely win the series. If the Capitals play the way they did in Game 2 or in minutes 41-53 of Game 3, they likely win. As always, an outstanding goalie performance can upend that, as Holtby nearly did in Game 3.

What makes this and most playoff series compelling is that it's usually a back and forth, a tug-of-war over that 45-55 percent where control of the game lies.

That brings us to one more point, something referenced at the end of that Japers' post: The Capitals haven't scored first yet. We haven't seen Barry Trotz Lockdown hockey yet. Many more chapters yet to come.