Alex Ovechkin missed his second straight game with Washington on Tuesday due to a lower-body injury, but the Capitals didn’t need him.
Employing the tight defensive structure that has been the hallmark of the Islanders, the Capitals won 1-0 on Daniel Sprong’s game-winner just 1:29 into the game while Vitek Vanecek made 18 saves for the shutout.
“They scored an early goal, which was very preventable,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “We overskated a puck and gave up the inside and they scored real early.”
It was Mathew Barzal who overskated the puck and allowed the goal. He was in a good position to defend, but he made a feeble defensive play and allowed Sprong to get the shot off.
Daniel Sprong scored the game-winning goal in consecutive contests as the @Capitals (32-13-4, 68 points) swept their three-game set against the Islanders (29-15-5, 63 points) and leapfrogged the Penguins (32-15-3, 67 points) for first in the MassMutual East Division. #NHLStats https://t.co/Hd4sgSswjm
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 28, 2021
It was the third straight victory over the Islanders by a Washington team that has taken charge of the East Division. The Capitals won the season series 6-2.
The Capitals got some energy from the crowd as the club hosted 2,100 fans for the first time since the Pandemic began last March.
The Capitals enjoyed a wide territorial advantage in play all game and the score could have been worse if not for the play of Ilya Sorokin, who made his second straight start and stopped 32 of 33 shots.
While the Capitals have plenty of offense, even without Ovechkin, they can play it tight when they want to, which makes them more dangerous heading into the playoffs.
The Islanders are still solid defensively, but they haven’t really been able to replace the offense of Anders Lee since he went down with a season-ending injury in March.
The Islanders have been leaking oil for a while now. They are 10-9-1 since the end of their nine-game win streak and 12-game point streak. They have only three regulation wins in the last 17 games and have scored only 15 goals in their last nine games.
The Islanders have been shut out three times in the last six games and for the second time in three games. The Islanders didn’t score one goal at five-on-five during the three-game set against the Capitals.
— YourSportDosage (@DosageSport) April 28, 2021
Another worrisome trend: The Islanders have scored only 12 even-strength goals since April 1 when they routed the Capitals 8-4.
“We’ve got another level,” Trotz said. “There are some guys that have another level in their game. A 1-0 loss against a very good team is not what you want, but it’s not coming real easy right now and a lot of that is due to a little bit on our part and a little bit on the competition as well.”
The Islanders weren’t able to create a lot of second opportunities and get in front of Vanecek, but Islander forward Casey Cizikas said he thinks this was the kind of game that the Islanders can learn from.
“We played a good game overall,” the Islander forward said. “It’s just getting those second opportunities. We had a lot of chances that just missed the net.”
Sorokin received his second straight start while Cory Schneider backed up Sorokin. Semyon Varlamov did not dress due to “soreness,” Trotz said.
“He skated today,” the coach said. “A little bit of soreness, so we kept him out. But I don’t see that being a problem going forward.”
Trotz mixed up his lines for this game, but it takes time to develop chemistry, and you could tell the lines were having trouble getting into a flow.
A couple really good, boring saves back to back by Ilya Sorokin and Vitek Vanecek. Hard push+beat the pass=simple, repeatable goaltending. (No replay unfortunately) #threesavesaday #hockeytwitter #Capitals #islanders pic.twitter.com/Wu9g9tTSa7
— Rob Gherson (@goalie_school) April 28, 2021
Josh Bailey moved up to the top line with Barzal and Jordan Eberle. Brock Nelson centered a second line with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri and Jean-Gabriel Pageau centered a line with Anthony Beauvillier and Oliver Wahlstrom.
Wahlstrom logged 14:26 of ice time and had two hits and one shot. He and Braydon Coburn drew into the lineup for the first time since April 18. The 36-year-old Coburn replaced 21-year-old Noah Dobson on the blueline.
Coburn played 13:06, took one penalty, had three blocks and one hit while skating alongside Andy Greene.
Capitals In Control
The Capitals (32-13-4, 68 points) have leapfrogged the Pittsburgh Penguins (32-15-3, 67 points) into first place in the East and opened up a five-point cushion on the Islanders.
The Boston Bruins (28-14-6, 62 points) moved within one point of the third-place Islanders (29-15-5, 63 points).
The Capitals have clearly won not only the series against the Islanders, but they have won the mental battle. They have shown the Islanders that they can play a free-flowing, high-scoring game or a tight-checking game and win both ways.
The Islanders now have seven games to get their momentum back before the playoffs. They face the Rangers for two games Thursday and Saturday.
They travel to Buffalo next Monday and Tuesday, have a pair against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday and Saturday of next week, and conclude the 56-game season in Boston against the Bruins on May 10.
The Islanders have to find offense again. This has been a season-long problem. They rank No. 19 in goals scored per game (2.69) and the club’s top-five forwards have to start scoring.
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No 20-Goal Scorer
Barzal still leads the team in the scoring race with 13 goals and 26 assists for 39 points. And Brock Nelson leads the team in goals with 16. But the Islanders are destined to be the only East Division playoff team to finish this season without a 20-goal scorer, and that includes the Rangers, if they can somehow squeak in because the NYR have three (Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider, all with 20).
The Penguins have three of them in Sidney Crosby (20), Jake Guentzel (21) and Bryan Rust (20).
The Boston Bruins have one in Brad Marchand (26) and two who should get there in David Pastrnak (18) and Patrice Bergeron (18). Washington, of course, has Ovechkin, who sits at 24, and T.J. Oshie has a chance to reach the 20-goal plateau. He has 17.
— Oleksii Issaram (@IssaramOleksii) April 28, 2021
The Islanders have an outstanding defense, no question. It is ranked No. 2 behind the Vegas Golden Knights. But as the Tampa Bay Lightning showed last season, defense PLUS offense wins championships. That’s why the Islanders may be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
To a fault, they have stubbornly held to their defense-first philosophy.
This year, the Islanders have the No. 19-ranked offense. Last year, the Islanders had the No. 22-ranked offense and were just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.
But playing straight defense is draining over a two-month-long playoff battle. Offense is needed to take the pressure off once in a while. Trotz and the Islanders have proved the doubters wrong before. Can they do it again?