The sellout crowd of 13,917 provided an electric atmosphere at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum as the not-so-new-look Islanders opened their season on Friday night.
At times, it still seemed like the first round of last season’s playoffs, when the Islanders swept the Penguins, winning the first two games at the Coliseum with a sound defensive structure.
There were other similarities to last season as well. Namely, the Islanders had trouble finishing around the crease in a 2-1 loss to the Capitals.
“It’s a tough loss, I think we did a lot of good things today,” said goalie Semyon Varlamov (26 saves), who made his Islanders’ debut after signing a four-year, $20 million deal. “We worked hard enough today to win this game. We just couldn’t score.”
The Islanders were 21st in the NHL last season with 228 goals and their power play ranked 29th.
Capitals rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov made 25 saves in his first NHL start on Friday night — getting a glove on Mathew Barzal in the final moment with the Islanders skating six-on-five — and the Islanders were 0-for-1 without a shot on the man advantage.
The only shot to beat him was Devon Toews’ flip from the boards at 12:27 of the first period that hit four Capitals’ skates, the last being defenseman Radko Gudas’.
“They hit a couple of posts, we hit a couple of posts,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “It is a game of inches and I thought, honestly, in the third period they were the better team. It was pretty even up to that point.”
“We’ve just got to bury some chances,” defenseman Scott Mayfield added. “I think we did some good things for sure but it’s two points lost.”
Last season the Islanders, with 103 points, finished one point behind the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. They were swept by the Hurricanes after sweeping the Penguins.
Friday night was the first look at the Islanders’ two key offseason acquisitions, third-line center Derick Brassard and Varlamov, who replace Valtteri Filppula (Red Wings) and Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner (Blackhawks).
Otherwise, the Islanders’ lineup was identical to last season, with two of the four lines and all three defense pairs staying the same.
Trotz was concerned his team might be at a disadvantage early on since the Capitals had already played a game, beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues, 3-2, in overtime at St. Louis on Wednesday night.
Where the Islanders’ rust showed most was in their decision making and puck management, particularly on their side of the red line, and on attempted entries over the Capitals’ blue line.
“Some of the chances they got were transitional things where you have to recognize you’re getting squeezed off,” Trotz said. “We were trying to play slow, get to the red line and it would start to die before the red line. We need to be able to execute and support.”
The Capitals opened the scoring on a transition rush as Jakub Vrana beat Varlamov underneath his glove from the right circle at 10:25 of the first period.
The Islanders created more chances in the second period by playing a more physical game.
The closest they came was Brock Nelson pulling the puck around a sprawled Samsonov and trying to tuck the puck inside the right post. But defenseman John Carlson reached out his stick to thwart the shot and Nelson ended the shift in the penalty box for hooking defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler at the Capitals’ blue line at 16:48 of the second period.
T.J. Oshie scored the winner on the power play from the crease as he chipped a shot over Varlamov’s shoulder at 17:43.