Washington Capitals at New York Islanders
Date: Monday, Dec. 11, 2017
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Barclays Center, Brooklyn
TV: NBCSW, MSG+
By Bill Sands
After a strong showing at home on Friday night against the Rangers, the Capitals (18-11-1) kick off the week with a trip to New York City to take on the Islanders (16-10-3). The Capitals are riding a four-game win streak, while the Islanders have had a rough start to December with a 1-3-1 record.
Capitals: Washington has been on a roll in recent weeks, shaking off an ugly home loss to Calgary in November to win seven of their past eight games, including impressive showings against Tampa, Toronto and Columbus. The key to this recent run stems from a balanced scoring attack, led by Tom Wilson, who has been dominant in the past month. Alex Ovechkin has been scoring at his usual rate and Nicklas Backstrom shook off a 22-game scoring drought with goals in back-to-back games against Chicago and the Rangers. The bottom-six, identified at the start of the season as a potential weakness, has been doing its part in killing penalties and providing supplemental offense. Jay Beagle opening the scoring against the Rangers and Devante Smith-Pelly continues to be a pleasant surprise with ten points on the season.
Most of these wins have come at home, however, and the Capitals have been average at best on the road this season with a record of 6-6-1. Prior to the post-Thanksgiving win in Toronto, the Capitals had lost four of their past five road games, averaging only two goals per game in that span while giving up nineteen.
One potential reason for these struggles comes from injuries to important players, but fortunately, the Capitals have been getting healthier recently. Winger Andre Burakovsky returned on Friday night after missing 20 games with a broken thumb and Matt Niskanen, who missed time this year as well, scored the game-winner late in the third period. With these key pieces coming back and starting to contribute, the Capitals hope to continue their hot streak on Monday night.
Islanders: This is the Caps’ first visit to Brooklyn this year, and they come to town to face an Islanders team that is playing well under new coach Doug Weight. Recent struggles aside, the Isles are off to strong start and currently sits two points back from Washington in the Metropolitan Division standings. Troubling for Washington is the Islanders’ strong showing on home ice; they are 8-1-2 at home this year.
The Isles’ answer to Tom Wilson comes in the form of Anders Lee, a similarly-sized power forward with quick hands. Lee got off to a slow start last year, scoring one goal in his first 18 games, but since then only Nikita Kucherov (50) has scored more goals than Lee (49). Also playing well is recent acquisition Jordan Eberle, who came over from Edmonton in an off-season trade for Ryan Strome and has shaken off a slow start to post seven points in his last seven games. Rounding out the Islanders’ top line is star center John Tavares, who continues to be one of the league’s best, despite swirling rumors about his impending free agency and contract negotiations.
The Islanders’ future with their arena and Tavares’s contract may be uncertain, but at the moment they’re a dangerous team with plenty of skill. The Caps won’t play another division game for another two and a half weeks, which makes this proverbial “four-point game” all the more important.
Keys to the Game:
- Controlling Momentum: The Capitals and Islanders are at different ends of the spectrum in terms of recent performance. The Caps have strung together multiple impressive wins over some of the league’s top teams, while the Isles have only managed to post a single win in December, which came in a shootout against Florida. The Islanders need something to go right, and if Washington can get an early goal, it will go a long way toward rattling New York’s confidence and causing doubt to creep in.
- Crashing the Crease: New York’s hot start comes despite average goaltending. Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss have been sharing time in net, with neither goaltender able to assert himself as a true No. 1 goalie. Halak has a 2.99 GAA and .903 save percentage in 16 starts, while Greiss’s 8-3-2 record covers up for a .890 save percentage and an abysmal 3.79 GAA. The Capitals have been scoring in bunches lately and will need to sustain pressure early and often to fluster New York’s net-minders.
- Strength vs. Strength: Each of these teams boasts a lethal top line and Monday night has the potential to be a high-scoring game. New York has scoring depth to match Washington with Josh Bailey producing at a point-per-game clip (31 points in 28 games) and youngster Matthew Barzal looking like an up-and-coming star. If the goalies can’t keep up and the game turns into a run-and-gun affair, the Caps will need Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Wilson to outperform the Islanders’ stars in order to bring home the win.