In the days of delight after the New York Islanders finished off the Washington Capitals with a pleasing, grind-the-insult-into-the-carpet 4-0 win in Game 5, we’ve heard and talked a lot about the keys to the win.
Now, as they open their series with the Flyers tonight, the question is: How many of those things can continue?
Because the multi-round playoffs are a story of which advancing teams can keep doing what they’re doing, vs. the opponents who stop them in their tracks. At the end of this next round, the losing team will be looking back and chafing at how the things “that got us there” were not on display. As we saw last year in the most extreme contrast of sweeps by and then against the Islanders, the sweet taste of a victory one round can quickly be cast aside by defeat in the next.
So...which of the following strengths do you think the Islanders can continue?
Barry Trotz: Structure Jedi
If the Capitals tried to make adjustments — and surely they did — they were not evident to these eyes. The Islanders were simply prepared...
...and Adam Pelech. Trotz saw something in Pelech early in his tenure. The Islanders’ late-season swoon was significantly influenced by Pelech’s injury absence. During this series he was deployed as designed: an Ovechkin-frustrating, chance-extinguishing metronome of broken dreams. He pinched wisely, he kept pressure alive, he disrupted rushes before they developed in the neutral zone, and he even had an insightful assist on Anders Lee’s goal to kick off scoring in Game 3.
One of his few mistakes in the series, an indecisive pinch in the third period of Game 4, created the odd-man rush for Ovechkin’s go-ahead goal.
Chances of this continuing against the Flyers: High. Trotz is Trotz, and if the Islanders follow through on his game plan they will always have a chance. Goodness, they won Game 5 with Ross Johnston, Michael Dal Colle, Leo Komarov and Matt Martin among the bottom six without looking like they were missing anything.
Pelech, too, showed through all of 2019-20 how important he is, something that was highlighted in absentia when an injury cut his regular season short.
Related: 5-on-5 Control
When the Islanders are at their best under Trotz, they roll four lines with consistent pressure to take the better share of high-danger chances at five-on-five, get a lead, then choke the opponent. Even when they don’t get the first goal, their five-on-five pressure has erased a lot of leads, in some instances in these playoffs very quickly.
When it’s not working, they take penalties, or they waste power plays that disrupt their rhythm, or they have a couple of lines that are off.
So far in these playoffs, it’s been far more of the former, though during the losses those warts showed. It almost makes you fear that the Islanders need a virtually “perfect” performance to get a win...and can they hope for that against a tougher opponent?
Chances of this continuing against the Flyers: 50/50, with caveats. Based on their rosters and 2019-20 performance, one would expect the Flyers to be clear favorites in this series. What has thrown things open for prognosticators now is that Philadelphia struggled so much against a flawed opponent in the Canadiens, and how well the Islanders returned to Peak Trotz performance.
Count me among those expecting the Flyers to be better this round. The Islanders likewise know they need to keep getting better...but does their roster contain a higher ceiling to reach?
The Beauvillier Breakout
Anthony Beauvillier has had himself a very nice playoff thus far, including a two-goal Game 5 for three goals and an assist in the series. That followed three goals and two assists (again, with a two-goal performance in the clincher) against the Panthers. He has had spurts before, but this is his first playoff tear.
Chances of this continuing against the Flyers: Medium. This is no knock on Beauvillier, and he’s likely to continue being a dangerous threat in the next series. But everyone’s production goes in streaks and bursts, that’s the nature of the game and the luck of the draw. You could easily see Beauillier’s scoring drop off next series while someone who was quieter, such as last season’s Penguins-killer Jordan Eberle, pick up steam.
But there’s an asterisk: It wasn’t just Beauvillier, however. His connection with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey was sublime. Can that continue into this round? The chances of that are better. Bailey is currently the leading scorer (lots of sweet assists, an empty-netter) and is trailed by Beauvillier and Nelson. The Flyers will certainly worry most about the Barzal line, will be annoyed by the Cizikas line, and can’t forget about the Pageau line.
Semyon Varlamov Kept Them in Every Game
Semyon Varlamov did not have to stand on his head to win any game. The Islanders simply did not put him in a “he stole that game for us!” situation. But in each win he made a handful of big saves.
Did he get better as the series wore on? Goalies under Barry Trotz are rarely overworked, so Varlamov just had to put it in reasonable playoff goalie performances in the first two games.
Of course, his breakaway stops in Game 3 were massive, including the double-save on Jacob Vrana in overtime just 29 seconds before Mathew Barzal won it for the Islanders.
Perhaps the Islanders would’ve pulled off the sweep if he had bailed them out in Game 4, a narrow loss but one that turned quickly when the team in front of him faltered. Varlamov finished the series with a .934 save percentage and 7.93 goals saved above average — impressive numbers, though both behind his next counterpart, Carter Hart.
Chances of this continuing against the Flyers: Toss-up. Goaltending is still voodoo. Carter Hart can get lit up for five goals by the Canadiens, then shut them down the next game. Varlamov has every bit of a chance to continue his strong play in the next round...but every round of the playoffs is marked by one team feeling like everything that went well in the previous one is a distant memory.
This may sound odd since the Islanders at times found themselves in the box at the wrong time in the Capitals and Panthers series, but one key to the series was that they largely did not take the jackassery bait from Tom Wilson, Garnet Hathaway and company. The Capitals had some diiiiirty plays in that series, but the Isles didn’t follow them into the gutter. Caps fans will naturally disagree and point to the Anders Lee collision with Nicklas Backstrom in Game 1, which had the worst outcome, but was hardly of the predatory and blindside nature that is an every-period part of Wilson and Hathaway’s playbook.
By and large, the Islanders kept their cool
Chances of this continuing against the Flyers: Beats me! We have a Flyers team that really got into some ugly battles with the Canadiens in the previous round. (Fortunately for Matt Niskanen, a crosscheck to the jaw is just a one-game suspension, served.)
And of course it’s the Flyers, so we associate violence and thuggery with their uniforms even though it’s not the 1970s and these teams haven’t faced off in a playoff series — where the violence truly comes out — since 1987, back when minute-by-minute maiming was not only a legal but encouraged feature of the NHL playoffs.
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Whatever happens, it’s safe to expect emotions will run high. Two veteran, cagey coaches. Alain Vigneault is a little more prone to “rally the hellions” outbursts than Trotz, but the Islanders coach is not averse to mercenary violence (see: The De-Evolution of Tom Wilson).
This looks like a long, back-and-forth slog of a series. And we’ll get plenty wound up, because both fanbases have their share of neurosis, fatalism, and loud mouth-breathers, who we’ll no doubt see appear on social media in droves.
Pretty sure a once-great Patrick Division rivalry is about to reawaken.