WASHINGTON - The Capitals had the same point total as the Islanders had. They also use the same offensive and defensive schemes, have the same caliber of elite-player captain and the same ghosts.
Just like the Islanders, the Capitals entered Game 1 Wednesday night with short-term and long-term playoff angst. Like the Islanders, the Capitals missed the playoffs last season and set out to do something about it. The Capitals haven't gone 22 years without winning a postseason round -- like the Islanders -- but they are pretty anxious to make some new history.
The Caps never have advanced past the second round since Alex Ovechkin joined them in 2005, and they realize Ovechkin will not be here forever. They would like to believe that they are finally getting somewhere.
"I think getting back into the fray was the No. 1 priority for this group," said Barry Trotz, the coach who was brought in to create an entirely new atmosphere at the Verizon Center, site of the Caps-Islanders playoff opener.
Trotz, having been fired in Nashville for not getting the Predators over the hump, was quickly snapped up last spring by the Capitals, who wanted a steady hand. Trotz has provided that, immediately establishing a good connection with Ovechkin, who had 53 goals and improved his plus/minus rating from minus-35 to plus-10 in one year.
The coach was tough when he had to be -- benching veterans on occasion -- and friendly when he needed to be, easing off on the practice schedule, supplying a big tub of beer, with bottles from each country represented on his roster. It also helped that, like the Islanders, the Capitals signed a couple of veteran defensemen (in Washington's case, it was Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen).
Defenseman Mike Green repeatedly has called the change in the air "like night and day."
Daylight broke late in the regular season. "We hung around that wild-card position for what seemed like 200 days," Trotz said. "Then we just said, hey we've got to ramp it up toward the end so we're playing well. And we did. By doing that, we got home-ice advantage."
But that arrived by the slimmest of margins: the Islanders losing a shootout at home to the Blue Jackets Saturday. It just shows that, despite the overwhelming majority of hockey experts picking the Capitals, these teams are remarkably even.
"There are a bunch of things that go into playoff success," said Braden Holtby, the goalie who played in 73 games this season. "You try to create your own luck, you don't get frustrated when luck doesn't go your way."
Trotz said, "It's just the team that's willing to stay with it longer. There are going to be defining moments: a big save, a good look, an opportunity on the power play, whatever. The one that can grasp those defining moments, that's the team that generally wins."