Caps-Islanders playoff preview: A bubble battle on the ice, behind the benches

The Stanley Cup window is still open for the Washington Capitals. On paper, the team that won it all two years ago has the depth and talent to win another championship. Of course, the game is still played on ice.

After winning the Metropolitan Division in the regular season, the Capitals had a chance at the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but managed only one win and five goals in three games in the round-robin tournament for playoff seeding.

So, the Capitals will be a third seed as they open a best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders on Wednesday at 3 p.m.

“I don’t think that you take a whole lot of good or bad from the round robin, because it was a glorified preseason,” said Capitals radio play-by-play voice John Walton. “It’s easy to say that when you finish third, but the Capitals were third in the conference in the regular season, so they did not go up and they didn’t go down either.”

Walton added that “it’s just hard to manufacture that kind of [postseason] intensity” for a seeding tournament, but manufacturing intensity should not be a concern for the Capitals and Islanders in a playoff series. There will be battles on the ice and the battle of wits behind the benches: Barry Trotz was in charge of the Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018, leaving two weeks later, after his contract expired, to become head coach of the Islanders.

Todd Reirden, Trotz’s trusted assistant for four years, was promoted to head coach of the Capitals and led them to the Metropolitan Division title last season. The regular-season success stirred optimism for another spring of celebrations, but the Capitals were eliminated in the first round of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I think, whether they want it or not, a lot of focus is going to be on the coaches,” said Walton. “I think it’s a good thing for the Caps because it helps get that playoff juice right away, especially when you don’t have fans in the stands.”

On the ice, the Capitals feature the NHL’s second-best offense, which will go against a stingy Islanders defense that yielded 2.79 goals per game in the regular season.

“The Capitals’ offense is probably going to dictate a lot of this,” said Walton. “If the top six forwards are scoring goals, the Caps win this series in five or six games. This is not going to be a sweep situation. The Islanders are going to win at least a couple of games, and they could easily win the series if the Caps aren’t careful. It is that close in my mind only because you’ve got the great equalizer of the bubble.”

Playing in the bubble, in Scotiabank Arena in Toronto without spectators, is very different and negates the Capitals’ home-ice advantage for this series. Still, Walton believes Alex Ovechkin, who only had one point in the three conference seeding games, will rise to the occasion in the playoffs like he has always done in the past.

“Alex is a playoff performer and he’s going to score his goals in this series,” said Walton. “The question is, who else will? Jakub Vrana was real quiet in the round robin, and he has to be able to perform at that 25-goal pace he had in the regular season. Evgeny Kuznetsov played his absolute best hockey of his career in the 2018 postseason, and he must reach that level again, or the Caps become an easier team to defend.”

John Carlson, a candidate for the Norris Trophy given to the NHL’s best defenseman, is questionable with an injury suffered in an exhibition game against Carolina last month. With 75 points, Carlson was the Capitals’ leading scorer and is especially needed on the power play.

In addition, forward Lars Eller is just returning to the Caps after being away from the team for the birth of his second child.

“The Capitals are not 100% going into Game 1, but they should be hopefully before too long into the series,” said Walton. “What you don’t want to have happen is the Islanders come up and bite you early and then you’re fighting upstream the rest of the series. That makes to me Game 1 and Game 2 very important.”

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