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Breaking down Islanders-Capitals in first round of Stanley Cup playoffs

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals battles

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals battles for the puck during the second period against Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders at NYCB Live on Friday, Mar. 1, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Since coach Barry Trotz joined the Islanders in 2018 just two weeks after leading the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup, the teams’ rivalry has been consistently even.

Eight regular-season games — four each season — have been split with the home team yet to win.

Now, the stakes are higher with the teams meeting at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in the first round of these unique NHL playoffs, being played at neutral-site, hub-city, quarantined bubbles.

Game 1 is Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Here’s a position by position look at both teams:

Forwards: The Capitals have the best player in the series in left wing Alex Ovechkin (48 goals, 19 assists) and Trotz faces a pick-your-poison in how to match his lines against either Ovechkin’s line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and bruising Tom Wilson or Nicklas Backstrom’s second line with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana. Ilya Kovalchuk, who still has that wrist shot, has been a nice addition to the third line with speedy Carl Hagelin. A healthy Casey Cizikas and the acquisition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau gives the Islanders strong, four-line depth. The line of Brock Nelson (two goals, one assist) with Anthony Beauvillier (three goals, two assists) and Josh Bailey (four assists) was the Islanders’ best in their four-game win in the best-of-five qualifier against the Panthers. The Islanders need more offensively from the top trio of Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle and captain Anders Lee. Edge: Capitals

Defensemen: The Capitals are hopeful leading scorer and Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson (15 goals, 60 assists) will be available after missing the round-robin and the Islanders are expecting Johnny Boychuk back after he suffered a head injury in Game 1 against the Panthers. The Islanders’ defense depth — Andy Greene filled in seamlessly — is a team strength and the Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock top pair will see plenty of ice time against Ovechkin. Brenden Dillon’s acquisition from the Sharks has made the Capitals deeper, but not as deep as the Islanders. Edge: Islanders

Goalies: The Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov was 3-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage against the Panthers and was 19-14-6 with a 2.62 GAA and a .914 save percentage during the regular season. The Capitals’ Braden Holtby, a former Vezina winner who backstopped the Capitals to the Cup under Trotz, went 1-1-1 with a 1.98 GAA and a .925 save percentage in the round-robin, a considerable improvement over his regular-season of 25-14-6, 3.11 and .897. His backup, Vitek Vanecek — with Ilya Samsonov unavailable — has yet to play an NHL game. Trotz is more than comfortable turning to Thomas Greiss (16-9-4, 2.74, .913) if necessary. Edge: Islanders

Power play: The Capitals ranked 17th in the NHL during the regular season at 42-for-216 (19.4%) and will be bolstered if Carlson is able to play. Ovechkin is lethal from the left and Oshie scored 10 of his 26 goals on the man advantage. The Islanders were 4-for-16 against the Panthers and ranked 24th during the regular season at 29-for-168 (17.3%). Pageau has been a welcome addition. Edge: Capitals

Penalty kill: Hagelin is a tenacious defender and a threat to get up ice for a shorthanded goal for the Capitals, who were sixth in the NHL at 199-for-242 (82.6%). The Islanders ranked 15th in the regular season at 142-for-176 (80.7%) and are much better when Pelech, Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck are all healthy. Still, the Panthers scored four power-play goals in 14 chances and one other goal two seconds after a power-play expired. Edge: Even

Coaching: Todd Reirden, Trotz’s replacement in Washington, was quick to say this series was not about Reirden vs. Trotz. But, in a way, it is. Which coach knows the other’s tendencies a little bit better could be the deciding X factor. Trotz, who has held an NHL job each season since leading the expansion Nashville Predators in 1998, is the second-winningest active coach in the league and he just handily defeated the leader, the Panthers’ Joel Quenneville. Reirden was a highly regarded associate coach under Trotz but still is looking for his first NHL playoff series win. Edge: Islanders

Staff predictions:

Neil Best: Capitals in five — The Islanders are well-balanced, well-coached, healthy and looked much better last week than they did in March. But the Caps are more battle-tested, and they have something the Isles do not: Ovechkin.

Andrew Gross: Islanders in seven  — What if the Capitals are unable to fully flip the switch to playoff mode after their sleepy round-robin play and what if Holtby — without a tested backup — struggles as he did in the regular season? Big ifs, but the Islanders’ defensive structure could ultimately be just enough to move on.

Colin Stephenson: Capitals in five — Do you know how many points Ovechkin had in the Caps' three round-robin games? Zero. Think the Isles will be able to similarly keep the Great 8 in check for this series? I don't.

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