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WASHINGTON – Ryan Strome is 21 years old, Brock Nelson is 23, and Josh Bailey is 25. Entering Wednesday night, the trio of New York Islanders forwards owned these combined career NHL playoff numbers: seven games, zero goals.
So much for the supposed importance of postseason experience.
Nelson scored twice, Strome and Bailey added a goal apiece, Jaroslav Halak made 24 saves against a familiar foe, and the Islanders beat Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals 4-1 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
Bailey (2008), Nelson (2010) and Strome (2011) were all first-round draft picks by New York, far-less-heralded than their teammate who went No. 1 overall in 2009, John Tavares, who finished second in the league in points this season. But while Tavares did have an assist, it was that other trio that made the biggest impact in the series opener.
"I liked their composure, the way they held their emotions in check, and they came up big for us tonight," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "They skated. And, you know, they played with confidence and poise. And they've done that all year."
Said Bailey, who added an assist: "There might have been question marks outside of the dressing room. I think us guys in here believe in one another, believe in what we have, and I think that tonight was an example of that."
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is at Washington on Friday night. The Capitals will need to figure out a way to slow down New York's transition offense, avoid lengthy lulls, and get more from Ovechkin. The three-time NHL MVP scored 53 goals this season to lead the league for the third year in a row and fifth time overall, but all eight of his shots Wednesday were turned aside.
"We're going to have to be a lot sharper. That goes right through the whole lineup," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I thought from our top guys to our role players, there wasn't too many sharp guys."
Aside from one bad blip — when he lost the puck behind his net, leading to Marcus Johansson's goal in the final minute of the first period — Halak was mostly superb after struggling late in the regular season.
On Wednesday, Bailey said, "Any time they were able to get some quality chances, (Halak) was there to shut the door."
There's real history between this goalie and this opponent. Halak stymied Ovechkin and the rest of his Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals while leading eighth-seeded Montreal to a first-round upset in the 2010 playoffs. Last season, Washington acquired Halak at the trade deadline, but he wasn't able to get them into the postseason.
Indeed, neither of these teams qualified for the playoffs a year ago. The Capitals made it six straight seasons prior to that, although they failed to get past the second round in that span.
And this was not the return they envisioned.
"Our desperation level could be a little bit better than it was tonight," Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "They looked like they had a little more urgency than we did."
The Islanders were aggressive on the penalty kill, holding the Capitals' NHL-best power play to three shots and no goals during two opportunities.
There were plenty of problems for Washington, starting with a poor pass by Troy Brouwer about six minutes into the game, a turnover that led to Nelson — who would later add an empty-netter with 79 seconds left — taking a pass from Bailey and putting a wrister past Braden Holtby.
"That's not the way we want to start the series — or the game," Brouwer said.
Trotz referred to that mistake as trying to make an "85-foot pass instead of the 7- or 8-foot pass."
"Some of that is trying to make something happen right away, where sometimes your best option is to play small ball, if you will," Trotz said. "Just chip away and chip away and chip away and chip away, instead of swing for the fences all the time."
NOTES: Play was delayed for about five minutes in the second period while a broken pane of glass behind Holtby's net was replaced. Less than 30 seconds after action resumed, Tavares beat Michael Latta on a faceoff, setting up Strome's goal. Trotz said Latta took the faceoff because Eric Fehr was off the ice, dealing with an equipment problem. ... New York was without D Travis Hamonic, injured last week. He missed the regular-season finale.
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