The strangest thing happens when the Islanders play the Capitals. The site doesn’t matter, the month doesn’t matter and, this year especially, the standings do not matter. They play each other so tough and so tight that they look just about even.
With an emphasis on the “just about.” The point is, the Capitals keep finding ways to be just a bit better. They got the extra point Thursday night with a 3-2 overtime win at Barclays Center despite the Islanders’ clutch comeback. For the home side, it was encouraging to see they can go toe-to-toe with the best team in the National Hockey League. It also was a reminder that they do need to get a bit better.
“They’re for sure a deep team. They’re built like we are with four lines that can all play. Good ‘D’, good goaltending. They’re definitely a good team,” said Frans Nielsen, who tied it with 1:44 left in the third period, only to see Justin Williams win it for Washington with 44 seconds left in overtime.
Although the Islanders trail the Capitals by 21 points, there doesn’t seem to be much of a gap on the ice. “No, there’s not,” Nielsen said. “They just have that consistency every night that we’re still missing. They were for sure the better team tonight, but at the same time, it usually turns out to be a good game when we meet these guys.”
Unlike the Capitals, the Islanders did not make sizable moves in the offseason and have not seen dramatic improvement in their young players. So consider Thursday night a subtle nudge for the Islanders toward the Feb. 29 trading deadline. They could use at least a minor shot in the arm to give them more experience and presence up front.
The Capitals did that during the offseason, adding Williams and T.J. Oshie, who assisted on the second of Alex Ovechkin’s two goals in a 1:27 span in the second period. “We’ve added some great pieces. We also lost some people,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, indicating there is more to the story, explaining why Washington has 42 wins in 56 games.
He pointed out that Braden Holtby has blossomed into a “top-end goaltender” with 36 wins and a shot at Martin Brodeur’s record of 48 in a season. Then there is the development of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who improved his team-leading point total to 58 Thursday night when he set up Ovechkin’s first goal.
“I was surprised the puck came right on my stick, but he can do that kind of stuff,” Ovechkin said of a teammate with whom he rarely skates. They were put on the same line Thursday night because Trotz thought the team had become stagnant.
Then there is the best goal-scorer on Earth. Ovechkin raised his total to 37, having seemingly raised his game after the Capitals were knocked out by the Rangers last year. “It’s not about how we’re better. Last year, we forgot about and just moved forward,” Ovechkin said. “I think the organization is moving forward, we had some good signings, some experienced guys. The locker room right now is unbelievable.”
Said Holtby, “We’re just focused on getting better. We’ve obviously had success in the past in the regular season and I think this year we’re just ready to build our team the best we can in order to do something in the playoffs.”
The goalie knows how hard every Capitals-Islanders game is. “They obviously have a lot of speed and they play a physical game,” he said. “They’re a very good team and I’m sure it’s not the last time.”
If the Islanders could find that little something, they could beat the Capitals, and if they could beat the Capitals they could win the East. But they do need, somehow, to find that little something.