TORONTO — A suffocating defense has become the Islanders’ hallmark under Coach Barry Trotz. But the Washington Capitals were well positioned to crack his system in the first round of the N.H.L. playoffs.
They knew his methods.
The core of the Capitals lineup had played under Trotz when he led the perennially underachieving club to its first Stanley Cup championship only two years ago.
After Alex Ovechkin scored twice to help Washington avoid a sweep in Game 4, the Islanders’ team defense reasserted itself and the club won, 4-0, on Thursday to capture the series at Scotiabank Arena. Semyon Varlamov made 21 saves for the shutout.
In the series-clinching game, Anthony Beauvillier scored two goals, his team-leading fifth and sixth since the start of the qualifying round. On his second goal, a brilliant individual effort in which he finished off an odd-man rush with Josh Bailey, Beauvillier was checked hard to the ice and skated slowly to the bench, but he returned for a regular shift.
The final two goals, from Nick Leddy and Bailey, came when the desperate Capitals lifted goaltender Braden Holtby for an extra attacker in the final minutes.
Ovechkin finished the five-game series with four goals, but he was blanked in three of those games. The Capitals couldn’t get scoring beyond their three stars, Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who accounted for Washington’s scoring. The Islanders’ scoring was spread out among 10 players.
In Game 4, the Capitals had used their speed to open up skating lanes and their aggressiveness to wear down the Islanders, who have the oldest team in the playoffs with an average age just shy of 29.
“I know a lot about that core,” Trotz said. “There’s obviously some real strong character there. They weren’t going away.”
“Anytime you get a chance to close this out you want to get it done,” Bailey said. “The last game hurt. I thought a lot of guys stepped up and did what needed to be done. And when we’re playing the right way, you can feel it on the bench.”
The Islanders are expecting a better playoff run after they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round last season. The Islanders missed the postseason in 2018 under Coach Doug Weight and in 2017 under Weight and Jack Capuano. The franchise hasn’t advanced to the conference final since 1993.
That he had the sixth-seeded Islanders ahead against a top-four seed in the East was clear validation for Trotz, a 21-year veteran and two-time coach of the year, over Washington’s Todd Reirden, a first-time N.H.L. head coach.
But Trotz rejected the idea that he had an advantage over Reirden because he was coaching against his former team.
“They’ve made some changes in some of the things they do, just as we’ve done with the Islanders,” Trotz said. “We’ve been focusing on Islander style of play, Islander identity.”
The Islanders-Capitals matchup was physical from Game 1, when a crushing check by the Islanders captain Anders Lee forced the Washington star Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup with a concussion. Backstrom returned to the series after missing the previous three games. He played a regular shift in Game 5, but was mostly ineffective.
During postgame interviews, Reirden described Lee’s hit as “predatory.”
This rivalry has intensified since the teams’ 2015 first-round series, which Washington won in seven games.
During the regular season, the Islanders tied for fifth in the league for fewest goals allowed, making it back-to-back seasons when they finished in the top five in that category.
When Trotz arrived on Long Island in June 2018, he was celebrated as few coaches are. In his first year, fans chanted his name loudly, a rarity for a coach in any sport.
Last year was the first season that the Islanders played without John Tavares since they drafted him first over all in 2009. Tavares, their captain, had signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent, and few saw the Islanders finishing even close to a playoff spot without him.
Days before Tavares left, and a month after Lou Lamoriello was hired to replace Garth Snow as general manager, Trotz agreed to a five-year, $20 million contract, more than twice what he was earning in Washington.
Without Tavares, the Islanders have emphasized a balanced attack. During their 68-game 2019-20 regular season, six players scored at least 14 goals. The Islanders’ top four points leaders — Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Lee and Bailey — were all Islanders draft picks and have spent their careers learning the Islanders’ system, albeit while dealing with coaching changes.
The 2018 rookie of the year, Barzal, 23, is the youngest, with four years’ experience, while Bailey, 30, is the most experienced with 12 years on the club. All four lines contributed goals in the series against Washington, while Semyon Varlamov was coolly efficient in goal.
To Trotz, structure is a plan and every player has a role. If there is a breakdown, he has a principle called layers of trust. “I trust that everybody does their job,” Trotz said this week. “Just do your job and do it well and then, if you do that, you have to go through more than one person.”
Trotz urges players not to give away “free ice” to the opponent. The other team has it easy, he said, “when you’re on the wrong side of people and you are turning the puck over in critical areas and not structurally in a good position.”
Trotz emphasizes details that appear to be minor — if a pass is not executed well in practice, he will break down what went wrong and restart the drill.
But he likes to give the players their space so they are not always under his critical glare.
The team has stayed unified off the ice with things like a table tennis tournament at its hotel in Toronto.
“We’re enjoying our time with each other,” Lee said. “It’s fun to be in a group and get competitive again.”