Just about anyone who has watched the Capitals over the course of the season can tell you what their biggest weakness is: defense. Per usual, Washington was one of the top teams in the NHL offensively, but struggled at the blue line. But looking ahead to the team's first-round matchup against the New York Islanders, improving offensively may actually be the key for a Capitals win.
Through the regular season, Washington ranked second in goals per game (3.42) and 18th in goals against (3.07). Since Dec. 23, when the team really began to struggle, those numbers deteriorated. From Dec. 23 to the season pause, the Caps ranked 8th in goals per game (3.28) and 29th in goals against (3.44). That certainly matched the eye test as there were games in which Washington defensively looked downright atrocious.
But while offense was the one thing we knew we could count on from this team, in the round robin goals were suddenly difficult to come by. In three round robin games, Washington managed just five goals.
"I think after the Boston game, guys are kind of starting to realize what these games are going to be like, how hard it is going to be to score and how hard you've got to work through the full 60 and sometimes more to get wins," T.J. Oshie said.
Now in a matchup against the defensively stout Islanders, the offense has suddenly become more pressing and the team has got to fix it if it hopes to win.
Under head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders are known for one thing above all else: defense. This is a very difficult team to score against. It doesn't matter if they play more conservatively overall, they are not going to leave themselves exposed in their own end. In the regular season, New York gave up 2.79 goals per game. In the qualifying round against the Florida Panthers, the Islanders gave up even fewer, holding the Panthers to just 1.75 goals per game.
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"They’re a committed team that plays a good style and plays to their system," head coach Todd Reirden said. "They’re going to be a difficult challenge."
However much Washington is able to shore up its defense, it's not going to be better than the Islanders. The Caps cannot out-defense New York...but they can out-score them.
As I mentioned above, the style the Islanders plays comes at a price and that is on offense where they ranked 22nd in the NHL in the regular season with 2.78 goals per game. Mathew Barzal is a tremendous offensive talent and has been in the NHL for three seasons, two of them under Trotz. In his rookie year without Trotz, Barzal scored 22 goals and 63 assists for 85 points. All three of those numbers remain career highs for him because his offensive numbers have not thrived under Trotz. When Trotz took over on Long Islander, it meant having to adapt to Trotz's defensive style which holds Barzal back, at least offensively.
So while the Caps defense has been a weakness all season long, New York's style of play is not set up to exploit it quite as badly as others. Add in the fact that Braden Holtby seems to have completely rebounded in net from an awful regular season and the Caps defense may be in decent shape against New York. The matchup that is going to determine who wins this series is the Caps' offense against the Islanders' defense. For Washington to win that matchup, the offense has to be better than it was in the round robin.
"it’s up to us to continue to find ways to manufacture offense the best way we can and make sure we’re going to those hard areas, as you always see in every playoff series," Reirden said. "We’ve got to get those areas more often than they do and match their work ethic. They’re an extremely hard-working group and we’ve got to make sure we match that to give ourselves a chance to have the most success we can.”
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So what does this mean? What were the Caps not doing in the round robin that they need to improve on in the playoffs?
"I think we can be better after turnovers, kind of getting a little bit of that quick-strike mentality," Oshie said. "I think our O-zone time needs to improve a lot with how much we're patient with the puck and hold onto it waiting for our chances. Our defensive side and our pressure back-checking and our defensemen I think have both been really, really good, it's mostly been just our puck decisions and getting rid of the puck a little too quick, being a little too antsy to make a play through the middle."
Perhaps most importantly, the Caps will also need more offensive contributions from the top two lines.
“We also need more from us top guys and I think there is no secrets," Nicklas Backstrom said. "We got to work a little harder, go to the net and get those secondary chances."
Oshie, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were all held to a single point in the round robin while Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana were held off the scoresheet entirely. Washington's lone win also was the one game in which the top-six scored twice.
Funny how that works.
A lengthy pause to the NHL season and a quick jump back into action was always going to benefit the defense more than the offense across the league. The timing and structure of an offense takes time to develop and Washington's will no doubt improve over time. Having said that, they don't have much time to wait. The Caps are now in a best-of-seven series against one of the top defenses in the NHL and the offense has to perform if Washington hopes to advance.
"I think overall we just got to use each other a little bit better and make sure we create those chances because it hasn’t been good enough so far," Backstrom said, "But on the other hand, now it is time when it starts so this is the time we need to show up."
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