(SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Islanders and Washington Capitals both make their return to the playoffs on Wednesday when the Caps host Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at the Verizon Center.
The Islanders missed the postseason last spring, but have made the playoffs twice in the last three seasons after missing the tournament in five straight campaigns from 2008-12.
For the first several months of the season, New York was riding high and seemingly on their way to a surprising Metropolitan Division title. Although they were never in real danger of missing the playoffs, the Islanders allowed the rival New York Rangers to easily outdistance them for the division crown and also opened the door for Washington to get home-ice advantage in this series.
The Isles owned a 39-19-1 mark through 59 games before struggling to an 8-9-6 mark over the final 23 tests. Despite the late-season swoon New York finished with 101 points, marking the first time it eclipsed the century mark since 1983-84. In the end, New York finished third in the Metro after losing the tiebreaker with Washington.
All things considered, making it this far already counts as a successful season for the Islanders, who have rarely made the playoffs since their dynastic run produced four straight Stanley Cup titles in the early 1980s.
With the franchise playing its final season on Long Island in 2014-15, the Isles have a lot riding on this playoff run. Making the postseason bodes well for the club's move to Brooklyn's Barclays Center this fall, but a deep playoff run could make the transition from Nassau Coliseum go even smoother.
During a time of change for the franchise, the Isles boast a marketable star player in John Tavares, the club's top centerman and 24-year-old captain. Tavares recorded personal bests in both goals (38) and points (86) in 2014-15 and also finished a season with a plus-rating (plus-5) for the first time since breaking into the NHL.
With Tavares leading the way, the Isles finished fourth in the league in scoring with an average of 2.99 goals per game. The club had nine players reach double digits in goals and seven of them notched at least 15 markers.
"They've got a deep team, they're real deep up the middle," Caps coach Barry Trotz said of the Islanders earlier this season. "They've got three scoring lines and a real hard fourth line."
A few additions in the offseason helped New York get better at stopping the puck even if the club's team defense only managed to go from bad to mediocre. The Isles were 28th in the league with an average of 3.18 goals allowed per game in 2013-14 but this season they improved to 2.73 GPG (23rd in NHL).
General manager Garth Snow believed he gave the Isles a No. 1 goaltender when he signed Jaroslav Halak to a four-year deal last May and the Slovakian veteran has rewarded Snow's faith in him. Halak went 38-17-4 with a 2.43 GAA and .914 save percentage, giving New York a solid, if unspectacular, presence in net.
Perhaps even more important than the Halak signing, however, was a pair of trades Snow pulled off on the eve of the season that wound up vastly improving the club's defensive depth. Nick Leddy was acquired from Chicago on Oct. 4 and in a separate deal on the same day Snow plucked Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins. Both trades were possible due to salary-cap issues in Boston and Chicago and those clubs' losses were clearly the Islanders' gain.
Leddy and Boychuk were New York's most productive defensemen this season with 37 and 35 points, respectively, while finishing second and third behind Travis Hamonic in ice time on the Isles blue line.
The Isles will lean even heavier on Boychuk and Leddy in this series after Hamonic missed the final game of the regular season due to a lower-body injury. Hamonic, who recorded 33 points this season, is expected to miss Game 1.
"We don't have any update on him at this point and we'll take it day-by-day," head coach Jack Capuano said of Hamonic.
The Capitals had a six-season playoff streak ended last spring, but made it back thanks to a solid campaign under Trotz, who joined Washington in the offseason after a long tenure as the bench boss in Nashville.
Heading into the 2014-15 campaign, many folks wondered how Capitals star Alex Ovechkin and Trotz would mesh, but so far the coaching switch has worked out just fine. Trotz's defense-first style didn't hinder Ovechkin's offensive game, as the Russian sniper led the league in goals for the fifth time in his career.
Trotz did what he was brought in to do -- make the Capitals a better defensive team. The club went from 21st in the league in goals allowed per game (2.79) in 2013-14 to the seventh-best defensive club this season. Washington allowed just 2.43 goals per game in 2014-15 and did so while increasing its offensive output from 2.74 GPG in 2013-14 to 2.89 GPG this season.
Ovechkin remains Washington's top offensive weapon, as he led the team with 81 points on 53 goals and 28 assists. He also cleaned up other areas of his game, going from a dismal minus-35 rating in 2013-14 to a plus-10 in the first season under Trotz.
The next goal for both Ovechkin and Trotz is proving they have what it takes to make a deep playoff run. In his seven trips to the postseason, Ovechkin has never made it past the second round. Trotz, meanwhile, led Nashville to the playoffs seven times and lost five times in the opening round while getting ousted in the second round twice.
The player who likely benefited most from Trotz's arrival was goaltender Braden Holtby, as the 25-year-old experienced a career season between the pipes. Holtby went 41-20-10 with a .923 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average in 73 games this season. He had a 2.85 GAA in a 48-game run during the 2013-14 campaign.
Holtby tied for second in the league with nine shutouts and enters this series with solid career postseason numbers. Holtby boasts a .931 save percentage and 2.04 GAA over 21 playoff games only to see Washington go 10-11 in those contests.
There's a good chance this Metro battle will be the most tightly contested series of the opening round. The Caps and Isles each won two games during four meetings in 2014-15 and three of the contests went beyond regulation.
The two biggest head-to-head matchups will come in the form of Ovechkin vs. Tavares and Holtby vs. Halak.
Ovechkin potted four goals and added an assist in four games against the Isles in 2014-15. Tavares had two goals and five points during the same sample of games.
Washington's No. 1 goaltender was 2-0-2 with a 2.62 GAA in four games versus the Isles this season, while Halak went 2-0 with a 2.35 GAA in two appearances against the Caps.
It's been over two decades since the Caps and Islanders have met in the postseason, with New York taking the last encounter in the 1993 division semifinals. The Isles have won five of their six all-time playoff series against Washington.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Friday in D.C.