WASHINGTON -- The first game of any playoff series is like the building of a house.
You start with a foundation and you may not know what the final product is going to look like, whether there’ll be hardwood or tiled floors, how long it will take to finish, but you know it’s going to be something.
If you listened to all the pre-series hype leading up to the Washington Capitals-New York Islanders first-round tilt, you had to imagine that the Islanders would be standing around handing the Capitals the tools.
Guess the Islanders had a different idea of what was going to get built here in the nation’s capital after skating off with an impressive 4-1 victory on the road Wednesday night.
While so much of the pre-series discussion was about the new-look Capitals and how they were built for the playoffs, how they had the lineup and played the game that foretold a long playoff run, it was the New York Islanders, a team with little playoff experience, who were more poised, more disciplined and, dare we say it, more ready for the start of this series.
"Sometimes you feel a little bit of pressure as a young guy, obviously coming into a building like this and playing against some veterans that [the Capitals] have in their lineup," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I liked their composure. Their emotion was in check and they came up big for us tonight. They skated and, you know, they played with confidence and poise. They’ve done that all year and right into Game 1."
Well, that’s not exactly true.
The Islanders drifted into the playoffs winning just three times in their last nine regular-season games; even when home ice advantage was within their grasp in the final week of the regular season, they frittered that away by giving up goals in the final minute (usually final seconds) of periods in their final three games.
They did it again in Game 1 on Wednesday night, too, allowing Marcus Johansson to snap home a goal with 56.3 seconds left in the first period to tie the game at 1-1.
And yet the goal had no apparent impact on the Islander psyche.
They scored 3:50 into the second period, Ryan Strome whipping home a shot that beat Braden Holtby just under the crossbar with what would turn out to be the winning goal. The shot was set up by a clean faceoff win by captain John Tavares, who was typically understated following the win.
“It’s no secret that teams respond after losses and we expect them to come back next game," Tavares said. "We’ve got an opportunity to go home with two and you want to take advantage of that.
“Everyone has been growing and maturing. We realize this is a great opportunity.”
It’s hard to imagine the Islanders could have built a better foundation for this series.
They allowed the potent Washington power play just two opportunities, both of which they denied.
They gave up few odd-man rushes.
When Washington started to wear on the Islanders with their forecheck and cycling the puck during stretches of the second and third periods, the Islanders kept those moments from becoming quality scoring chances.
And when the Capitals did get good looks -- which was not often give their 25-shot attempts -- veteran netminder Jaroslav Halak calmly turned them aside, winning the goaltending battle that had already been ceded to the Caps' Holtby before the puck dropped.
In short, they did many of the things that most observers had expected the Capitals to put on display.
“There might have been question marks outside this dressing room, but most guys in here believe in each other and believe in what we have,” said Josh Bailey, who scored the Islanders’ third goal just past the midway point of the second period. “I think tonight was a good example of that.”
And just like that, the pressure shifts significantly onto the Capitals to steal back the tools, to build something else.
“Oh it’s just one game here. We know we can play a lot better than that. It’ll be a long series,” predicted veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was signed by Washington in the offseason to help stabilize a team that has historically never been able to get over the playoff hump, never really responded well to adversity when it mattered most.
“You’ve just got to turn the page like I said. Approach it like it’s 0-0. Obviously I think our desperation level can be a little bit better than it was tonight. They looked like they had a little bit more urgency than we did. Battle level and loose pucks, it seemed like they had a little bit more jump. I don’t know if it’s nerves or what. Sometimes starting at home you have a few more nerves. Like I said, we just have to find a way to have a better start.”
Capitals head coach Barry Trotz was likewise candid about his team’s effort, saying he needs more from everyone.
“That goes right through our whole lineup,” Trotz said. “Just got to get our game in order.”
That means Holtby has to be better -- he looked strangely perplexed on the Islanders’ first goal by Brock Nelson, a pedestrian-looking wrist shot that beat him low to the glove side.
“I misread it a little bit,” Holtby acknowledged afterward.
It means the defense has to do a better job of handling the puck and, of course, the Capitals must do a better job of creating problems for the Islander's blue line and Halak, who saw pretty much everything the Capitals threw at him.
It’s still too early to know what this series will become, what kind of structure and ultimately who live in it.
But after one game it’s certainly looking like something much different than many people had anticipated.