By Jeff Capellini
For one night, they did not look like the Islanders of old.
As in the team that very few thought was mature or experienced enough to overcome an end-of-the-season swoon to make any kind of statement in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Isles looked like their early season selves on Wednesday night during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference opening-round series against the Capitals, basically skating the home team out of the Verizon Center. New York withstood some predictable early pressure before frustrating Washington at every turn on its way to a 4-1 victory.
It was a brilliant performance on every level.
The Islanders were simply a different team than the one that went just 6-8-5 over the season’s final quarter, a slide that cost them a shot at first place and eventually second place in the Metropolitan Division, along with home-ice advantage in the first round.
Playing fast and physical, the Isles consistently transitioned from defense to offense quickly while forechecking and finishing checks in a manner that did a number on their bigger and more experienced opponents.
Veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk, one of the few Islanders with extensive playoff experience, was a guest on WFAN on Tuesday. He emphasized how his team needed to make smarter decisions in order to avoid coughing up leads, something that has been a major problem for this team over the past two seasons.
The words of wisdom were clearly taken to heart.
Once they established a two-goal advantage in the second period, the Isles didn’t turtle or shell up as we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Instead, they made crisp passes out of their defensive zone to avoid giving the high-powered Capitals odd-man advantages, and dumped pucks deep in the offensive end, forcing Washington to travel 200 feet throughout the final 20 minutes.
The Isles were clearly not impressed by the Caps’ imposing size on defense or by goaltender Braden Holtby’s gaudy regular season goals-against average (2.22) and save percentage (.923), as they shot with extreme accuracy and won numerous battles along the boards and in front of the net.
The scoring didn’t come from predictable veterans like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, and that’s not to say they didn’t play well. Both played roles in setting up second-period goals, but it was three kids who ultimately put the boots to the Capitals.
Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey played like they were unfazed by this whole playoffs thing, each scoring their first postseason goal, and in Nelson’s case his first two.
“Everyone has been growing and maturing and we realize this is a great opportunity,” Tavares said after the game. “So it’s crucial for those guys to make impacts.”
The question now becomes, will the Islanders continue to be the aggressors and tone-setters when the series resumes on Friday? The mere fact that Capitals coach Barry Trotz will be forced to make adjustments is a triumph in itself. While many media types called for a competitive series, the consensus was the Caps would win in around six games.
And while they still may, it’s painfully obvious they are not going to intimidate the Isles with their physicality and are certainly not going to scare them off simply by getting Alex Ovechkin the puck with space, two things that were often cited as keys to series victory.
“We expect them to come hard next game and obviously respond, so we know we’re going to be up for a challenge,” Tavares said. “You get to playoff hockey and everyone is stepping up their game.”
Trotz will adjust, especially on the power play, where the Islanders cheated to Ovechkin all night. But while he’s at it, the Capitals’ coach will need to devise some even-strength tactics as well, because every time his players looked like they had established some momentum with either sustained offensive zone time or freed-up shooters up in the slot, Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak was there to close the door.
With the exception of his late first-period giveaway behind the net that set up the Capitals’ only goal, Halak was superb. He made 24 saves, including several highlight-reel jobs late in the third with the opponents in desperation mode.
And while it was just one game, it’s pretty evident that Halak has the capability to make a serious imprint on this series. He showed Wednesday night that as forgettable as his final week of the regular season was, he has what it takes to put the Islanders on his back now that the games truly matter.
Moving forward, Friday night represents a major opportunity for the Islanders. Considering all the emotion associated with what are now the final few games left at Nassau Coliseum, if this team can somehow find a way to take a two-game lead into Game 3 the atmosphere at the old barn on Sunday will simply be insane.
It will be seismic.
It will be the loudest the building has ever been, and that includes all the Stanley Cup Final games that were played there in the 1980s.
The Shawn Bates penalty shot game? Yeah, louder than that one, too.
While having already seized home ice in this series, the Isles with a win Friday will put an unbelievable amount of pressure on a Capitals team that has historically struggled in the playoffs.
Why leave anything to chance?
“Every game is going to be nerve-wracking; every game is going to be exciting,” Strome said. “I can imagine when we get to home ice it’s going to be even more exciting, so we just have to take care of business here, one game at a time, and obviously we each have to learn from it, young guys included.”
Regardless of how Game 2 plays out, we are going to learn a lot about this team. Does it have the awareness to seize an opportunity? Does it have the killer instant needed to push an opponent to the ledge?
Because that’s where the Capitals will be if they lose, staring down into a deep, dark abyss, where the corridors may be narrow and the lines for seemingly everything long, but also where there isn’t a bad seat in the house and sound tends to have feel.
The Islanders gave clear indication in the series opener that whatever ailed them earlier is not going to be the reason why this season eventually ends.
Someone is going to have to beat them, because it’s starting to look like they are learning how not to beat themselves.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet