It's been eight months since the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals last played when it mattered. In a quite entertaining and changing-by-the-day series, the Caps prevailed, the Isles unable to continue the Game 7 curse that has haunted the Capitals in every jersey incarnation.
In hockey it seems you're always missing a defenseman, and the Isles were missing three by the end of that series. Now Travis Hamonic is back and Lubomir Visnovsky has been replaced by Marek Zidlicky, but Johnny Boychuk is now out. So the Isles have the same team, but a little different.
The Capitals are the same, but more different. They added some nice pieces over the summer -- TJ Oshie for Troy Brouwer, Justin Williams for nothing -- and they have some blossoming young players while several of the Islanders young cogs (Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, even Nick Leddy to a degree) have had stilted seasons.
Dmitry Orlov, who was injured and missed that entire series, is back healthy, but Brooks Orpik is on the shelf (karma) and John Carlson (lower body) is nursing an injury too. That means ex-Islander Aaron Ness has gotten NHL work, including tonight's game. Also, Zach Sill was suspended for Bruining a Bruin, so Michael Latta plays in his place.
Oh, there's one more change that doesn't affect tonight but is interesting and could affect the Metro race.
The Capitals, who have a good team, a good lead in the Metro, and the feeling of a team that should probably be "going for it," have added a new, grizzled, "veteran" face: Mike freaking Richards.
A mistake? A stroke of brilliance on a player that shouldn't look as bad as he has at his age? Time will tell. Japers' Rink weighed in on the why and the risk:
The timing is pretty beneficial, as well, as it allows them to address a general lack of depth in the bottom-six (made worse by the recent injury to Beagle) without being pressured by much of a sense of urgency. The team has built up enough of a cushion in the standings, and has enough guys able to chip in on a temporary basis, that they can still afford to give Richards time to get back into NHL shape; if for some reason it doesn't work out, or if he needs a bit more time, there are almost two months left before the trade deadline to make another move.
A key contributor on the Kings' first Stanley Cup team and still an important piece of their second one, Richards saw a shocking decline during his Kings' tenure -- one way too steep for someone just turning 30 years old last February.
But...maybe there were other factors, factors that led to his drug arrest in Canada last summer, which the Kings used to conveniently terminate his cap-dragging contract that he signed with the Flyers even though it is law that only the Islanders ever signed such deals.
Apparently there were "several teams" interested in Richards, and I can't tell if that's the old boys network being the old boys network, or if there is real reason (besides his still-not-ancient age, and "pride," and such) to believe Richards won't be as bad as he was at the end in L.A.
Regardless, good teams need the kind of depth where they get big contributions from their bottom-six, often delivered through players who have the talent if not the legs to be (once upon a time) top-six contributors. This is a simple dice roll for the Caps.
What do they make of the Islanders, Barry Trotz? Rinse, repeat:
"Going into the Islanders’ [game], the one thing they are is they’re a very good hockey team. They’re very deep. They have four lines; extremely deep, and they’ve got a mobile defense and get good goaltending."
Anyway, this should be fun. As a franchise, the Islanders are on the rise and the Capitals are back to where most thought they should be before they went through their post-Boudreau coaching safari. Starting slowly under Trotz last year before steadily building all season (and then, dropping yet another 3-1 series lead, as the curse returned a series late), they've hit the ground running this season.
The two teams face each other three times over the next month before their final meeting in the last week of the season. They might be the new face of the Metro. They could make last year's playoff series an annual engagement.
- The Isles will start Jaroslav Halak in his return from IR. He last played before Christmas.
- Otherwise the lineup is the same, including Adam Pelech instead of Brian Strait as Boychuk's replacement.
- They skated this morning at Iceworks instead of in Brooklyn, a change to the gameday routine that will continue at least for a while.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight over yonder.