Barry Trotz famously told the then-defending champion Washington Capitals two years ago any future title runs would go through Long Island.
Toronto will have to do.
Trotz and the New York Islanders will face the Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with Game 1 on Wednesday night. Like all playoff games in the Eastern Conference, the series will be held in Toronto because of the pandemic.
“I think it’ll be a hell of a series,” Trotz said. “Both teams are well-equipped to go at each other.”
Back in 2018, the veteran coach was addressing his former team before facing them for the first time after leading the Caps to the Stanley Cup championship and then leaving in a contract dispute and joining the Islanders.
“You hoped going into what we were trying to do, which was make the playoffs, hopefully you'll meet a team like the Caps," Trotz recalled. "So that's where that was at.”
Washingon coach Todd Reirden, who was an assistant before taking over when Trotz left, downplayed the coaching matchup.
“It’ll be a great matchup for the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders,” he said. “It’s not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden.”
Both teams play a tough, defensive-minded style and are evenly matched. They have split eight games over the last two years since Trotz, assistant coach Lane Lambert and Islanders director of goaltending Mitch Korn switched sides — with the road team winning each time.
“We know their system well,” Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s going to be tight games, and it’s going to be tough games. It’s not going to be easy.”
The Islanders look much improved in the restart from the team that was dealing with injuries and had lost seven straight when the NHL paused the season in March. They eliminated Florida in four games in the qualifying round.
The Islanders averaged 3.25 goals per game against the Panthers, and held them to 1.75 per game, improvements from the regular season (2.78 and 2.79, respectively).
“I thought everyone on the team did a really good job in the qualifiers to step up their game,” said trade-deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who was tied with Anthony Beauvillier for the team with three goals in the series.
The Capitals struggled during their round-robin games for seeding. They lost to Tampa Bay and Philadelphia before edging Boston to claim the No. 3 seed in the East.
“Every game we’ve played here you get a little more and more stamina and a little more and more comfortable," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “I think the whole group feels pretty comfortable going into Round 1 now.”
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The Islanders' Semyon Varlamov played the entire series against Florida and figures to get the nod against Washington. Varlamov was 1-2-0 with a 3.39 goalsl-against average in three games against the Capitals during the season. Holtby will start for the Capitals. The 2016 Vezina Trophy winner posted a 1.98 GAA in round-robin games against Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Boston,
Reirden juggled his top two lines during the Capitals' game against Boston and liked what he saw with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom playing with Ovechkin, and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson dropping to the second line with Jakub Vrana.
“We can move them all around and give quite a few different looks to the opposition,” Reirden said. “It makes us a very difficult matchup team.”
The Capitals' penalty-killing was sixth in the NHL at 82.6% during the season and was even stingier at 8 for 8 in the round-robin games. The power play hasn't fared as well. After converting 19.4% of their chances (17th), they are 1 for 10 in the restart.
The Islanders' power play was 24th at 17.3% before the pause; it is now converting a quarter of its chances (4 for 16), and the penalty kill has dripped (80.7% to 71.4% so far in Toronto).
The Islanders played without defenseman Johnny Boychuk after he was injured in Game 1 against Florida when he took a shoulder to the head. He should be back against the Capitals.
Reirden said defenseman John Carlson's status was uncertain. Carlson was injured during an exhibition game against Carolina and has not played since. As for forward Lars Eller, who left the bubble last Wednesday for the birth of his secod child, Reirden said his status is controlled by the league's quarantine protocols and he is waiting to find out when Eller can rejoin the team.
The teams are meeting in the postseason for the eighth time, with New York winning five of the previous series. That includes the division semifinals in 1985 when the Islanders rallied from an 0-2 series deficit to win — the only time a team has accomplished that feat in a five-game series. The Capitals won the teams' last postseason matchup in the first round in 2015 — Trotz's first season in Washington — winning 2-1 at home in the deciding Game 7.
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