Through five games, the Capitals lead all playoff teams with 235 hits and the New York Islanders are second with 217, making their first-round series the most physical among the NHL’s eight playoff matchups.
And the casualties are piling up like junkyard cars.
While the Capitals lost center Eric Fehr [upper body] in Game 3, the Isles, who began the series without injured defenseman Travis Hamonic, lost defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky [head injury] in Game 4 and Calvin deHaan [upper body] in Game 5.
“It’s something we talked about during the regular season and it’s even more important when you play in a seven-game series,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who leads the Caps and ranks tied for third in the NHL with 30 hits. “We lost the the first game but we told each other, ‘Just keep investing physically and eventually it’s going to take its toll.”
Tom Wilson’s big hit on Visnovsky knocked him out of the series in Game 4 and Troy Brouwer’s hit on deHaan forced him out of Game 5 in the third period.
“He made a pass and I was just doing what I do,” said Brouwer, one of 11 Capitals with 10 or more hits in the series. “I finished my check.”
As a result the Islanders may play Game 6 with two rookie defensemen in their lineup. Isles coach Jack Capuano said Friday he has not decided between his three options of Griffin Reinhart, who made his playoff debut in Game 5 and was a minus-2, Ryan Pulock, who is from Barry Trotz’s hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba but has yet to play in an NHL game, and Matt Donovan, who played 12 games for the Islanders this season.
“I don’t think you necessarily want to see guys get injured,” Orpik said, “but when guys aren’t as eager to go back and get pucks, it takes a lot out of you endurance-wise, too.”
It is no coincidence that Trotz has constructed his forward lines so that at least one “heavy” forward is on every line. Ward serves the role on the top line, Jason Chimera on the second, Brouwer and Jay Beagle on the third, and Wilson, Michael Latta and Brooks Laich on the fourth.
“It doesn’t have to be a big hit, but any time you’re wearing them down, it takes its toll over and over and over,” Brouwer said. “It does us justice, especially in a long payoff series.”
The Caps’ aggression also led to the Islanders taking 31 minutes in penalties in Game 5, including 24 in an undisciplined third period in which Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck took turns slashing Brooks Laich.
“At the start of the series we talked about being as disciplined as we can,” Capuano said. “But emotions run high. I get it. Guys are out there battling, so I didn’t mind it.”
Capuano said he’s hoping the emotion of playing what could be the final NHL game in the 43-year-old Nassau Coliseum will help offset his team’s inexperience on the blue line.
“Listen, our backs are against the wall,” he said. “We’re not going to change anything now. We’ve had a good year and I’m just trying to orchestrate a lineup that gives us a good chance to win here.
“You watch the TVs, everybody is talking about their defense and our defense and we’re the underdogs. That’s fine. We’ll take the underdog role. We have a chance in our building to take it to a Game 7. Our backs were up against the wall a lot this year and we responded really well and I think we’ll do the same tomorrow.”