They’ll need to replicate that tonight to buy themselves another game and another few days in the bubble.
Centers of Attention – Caps center Nicklas Backstrom has missed each of the last three games of the series, and he also missed the last two periods of Game 1 after taking a blindside hit from Islanders captain Anders Lee in the third minute of the series. With Backstrom out of the lineup, the Caps turned first to Travis Boyd in Game 2 and then to untested rookie Brian Pinho in Games 3 and 4 of the series.
Backstrom has practiced with the Caps this week, and his possible presence in the lineup for tonight’s Game 5 has been termed a “game-time decision” by Caps coach Todd Reirden. But if Backstrom is able to return it should provide a significant lift to the Capitals, who would be – for the first time in this series – playing with their full complement of four centers from the regular season, a quartet in which they have a great deal of confidence. It would also enable them to better match up against the Islanders’ own formidable foursome of fine centers.
“It definitely is a challenge, but that’s part of the hand you’re dealt,” says Reirden of playing without Backstrom. “Injuries are part of the game – suspensions, different issues – especially now; we knew coming into this tournament that there could be a lot of this. Unfortunately for us, Nick has not been in our lineup and we had to start this series without Lars [Eller] in our lineup.
“So it’s been some difficult things, but obviously Nick Backstrom is a special player. He has a huge impact in our room, on the ice, how he goes about his day, the confidence he gives our team. He is a huge part of our leadership group. Even despite him not being able to be on the ice, he has still been able to be around. It’s not the same as being able to be on the ice, but I’ve definitely utilized him in that respect, just to be around, so that when he does come back, he is a part of it and he’s ready to go. We’re excited to have him back, whenever that is.”
With Backstrom watching from the stands, Reirden has ridden his top pivot duo of Eller and Evgeny Kuznetsov, double-shifting them at times and having them assume a greater workload during the game. With Backstrom out and Eller still in quarantine in Game 1, Kuznetsov skated a whopping 26:27 in the series opener, the most ice time he has ever had in a non-overtime playoff game. Kuznetsov also logged over 22 minutes in Tuesday’s Game 4 victory.
In his first game of the series in Game 2, Eller logged 21:29, which was eight seconds shy of his single-game personal high for the postseason. Fourth-line center Nic Dowd has seen his workload increase by a couple minutes a game in Backstrom’s absence as well.
“People have to be ready for that,” says Dowd. “The playoffs is such a unique situation where guys go down, or we’re in the bubble right now guys have to leave for their families or whatever it may be. But I think guys on our team cherish that opportunity and to be quite frank, that’s why we play, right? We all want to be the guy, we all want to be the number one center and unfortunately there’s only one of those spots on the team and Nicky and Kuzy have done an excellent job at taking on that role over their careers.
“Having Nick back will be huge. I think just having the ability to roll four lines and each line really has a role that they play, and to be able to do that and do that consistently wears down a team. And I think it will take a lot of pressure off of Kuzy especially.”
Dating back to the 2016 playoffs, Backstrom has 56 points (18 goals, 38 assists) in his last 56 playoff games. He also has four career overtime game-winning goals in the playoffs, a Washington franchise record. One of those was scored against the Islanders in 2015.
“He’s a guy that does so much for this team, on the ice off the ice,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. “He’s a great leader, so when you put someone like him into the lineup, it’s going to help in a number of different ways. He does a lot of little things well. He controls the team very well, and I think a guy as dynamic as him with the hockey IQ that he has, it can help you win hockey game for sure. So we’re excited to have him back when he gets back, but obviously the health is a priority.”
Killing It – Washington’s penalty killing unit has been the one completely solid aspect of its game throughout the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Caps have been successful on 21 of their 22 shorthanded missions (95.4%) in the postseason.
But they’ve also been pushing their luck a bit in that regard as of late. The Caps have taken a minor penalty before the first television timeout of the first period in each of the last three games of this series, and they’ve been tasked with five shorthanded assignments in each of those games. That’s a heavy workload for a team that’s playing without its full complement of healthy players, and it has also prevented the Caps from establishing all four of their lines and being able to roll them to the degree to which they’d like to do so.
Although the Islanders went 0-for-5 in Game 4 on the power play, they generated a dozen shots on net, and won roughly two-thirds of face-offs while they were up a man, ensuring a lot of time in the attack zone.
“We put it in play a lot, we had a couple looks,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz of his team’s power play in Game 4. “We had the zone time, but we need production out of it. Their penalty killers have held us pretty well off the scoresheet for the most part in the series, and we’ve got to find a way to get the puck in the back of the net on the power play. But I thought our power play was better today than it was the other day.”
“I thought the power play was good tonight,” said Isles center J-G Pageau after Game 4. “We put a lot of pucks on net, we had some really good chances, it just didn’t go in. But these bounces are going to change if we keep doing the right thing. I thought tonight the guys were moving the puck really well and putting a lot of pucks on net with traffic. We had some good looks.”
New York will almost certainly make adjustments for Game 5, and the Caps will need to be ready for that. There were five playoff games in the NHL on Wednesday, and four of them were playoff games. Many of those games hinged or turned on the strength of power-play or shorthanded goals, partially because when teams get deep into a best-of-seven series, they have made adjustments and have a better idea of how to solve the opposition’s special teams.
“It was hard for us to make the adjustments because I thought our PK was pretty good the first three games there,” says Caps defenseman Nick Jensen. “I think they made a few better adjustments themselves, and they got a little bit more chances, a little bit more [zone] time. But with that said, it’s going to be vital for our team to stay out of the penalty box in the next couple of games. The more looks we give them, the more chances we give them to switch things up and find ways to get pucks to the net and scoring chances.
“So yeah, like I said I think we’ve been pretty good. They made their adjustments last game and we’re probably going to make our first adjustments this coming game.
Washington has killed 18 of 19 (94.7%) New York power plays in this series.
“They obviously have a good kill,” says New York winger Jordan Eberle. “They come out and block shots, they’ve blocked a ton. They’re aggressive – especially on the entries – we have had a tough time getting in. But yeah, last game I thought we had some good looks. The power play when it’s not going overly well, the biggest thing is just to simplify it, get the cliché of pucks to the net, and try and get a second opportunity. The fact that we had some opportunities is a positive, but in the playoffs obviously power plays and creating momentum is huge. So if we want to finish this series, we’re going to have to be strong in that aspect for sure.”
In The Nets – Two nights after helping to keep the Caps alive with a 24-save effort in Game 4, Braden Holtby will be back in the Washington crease and looking for a similar result. His Game 4 victory was the 50th of his NHL career; he is the 21st goaltender in League history to achieve that milestone.
If Holtby is able to manage a win in Game 5 tonight, he would crack the NHL’s all-time top 20 in playoff victories, tying Boston’s Tuukka Rask for 20th on the list. In the 2020 Playoffs, Holtby is 2-4-1 with a 2.55 GAA and a .909 save pct.
New York will obviously go back to Semyon Varlamov, who has played every minute of every game for the Islanders in these playoffs. The Caps ended Varlamov’s four-game winning streak on Tuesday night, but he is 6-2 with a 1.87 GAA and a .925 save pct. in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Varlamov is tied for the League lead in playoff victories.
All Lined Up – Here’s a look at how we expect the Caps and the Islanders to look when they play Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, with two reminders: Backstrom will be a game-time decision. If he is able to play, he is likely to replace Pinho in the lineup. If that’s the case, Backstrom would likely man the middle of Washington’s second line and Eller would slide down to the third. Finally, New York is also believed to be mulling over some potential lineup changes; below is how they lined up for Tuesday’s Game 4.
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom/20-Eller, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 20-Eller/64-Pinho, 17-Kovalchuk
14-Panik, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
27-Lee, 13-Barzal, 7-Eberle
18-Beauvillier, 29-Nelson, 12-Bailey
47-Komarov, 44-Pageau, 10-Brassard
17-Martin, 53-Cizikas, 15-Clutterbuck