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Despite shootout win, Capitals defense still has a lot to sort out

The biggest question mark for the Capitals heading into the 2017-18 season was their defense.

After one game — a 4-4 shootout win over the Senators — it is safe to say it remains a question mark, albeit an early one.

A training-camp competition led to Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney getting the first game as the bottom pair. The results were not exactly encouraging. But such is life for a new partnership in Game 1 of an 82-game season.

The two seemed to struggle immensely looking lost at times in their own end. The game looked especially big for Ness, who took two penalties on the night, one for holding the stick and another for slashing.

Barry Trotz also did not seem sold on the pairing based on their playing time.

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Ness got only 11:12 of playing time and Chorney got 12:41. The other defensemen were leaned on heavily with 25:03 for Niskanen, 26:06 for Orlov, 27:45 for Carlson and 24:47 for Orpik.

The five penalties the team had to kill impacted the playing time as Chorney only logged 38 seconds shorthanded while Ness had no time at all. 

But that also further highlights the point. Of the team’s six defensemen, Trotz felt comfortable with only four of them on the penalty kill.

Interestingly, however, while all eyes were on the Capitals’ third pair of Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney, it was turnovers from the top two pairs that nearly cost Washington the season-opener.

In the second period, Carlson attempted an ill-advised pass off the wall in the neutral zone that was immediately gobbled up by Mark Stone. That launched a play Stone was able to finish with a goal to make it 2-1 Ottawa. Later, in the third period, facing pressure from Derick Brassard, Matt Niskanen’s pass in the defensive zone was intercepted and Brassard was able to bury it past Braden Holtby for the 3-1 lead.

With the questions this team faces with its third pair, it cannot survive if its top two pairs are giving up egregious turnovers. But again, it's very early, and concerns can be erased in a hurry.

But it would not be a surprise to see defensive prospect Christian Djoos — who was a healthy scratch for Thursday’s game — get a sweater for Saturday’s home opener as Trotz tinkers to find the right combination.

Madison Bowey is also waiting in the wings in Hershey. He had a strong camp and looked like one of the team’s top six defensemen, but because of his waiver status he found himself to be the odd man out. His return to Washington could come sooner rather than later if he plays well and the Caps’ defense continues to struggle on the bottom pair.

Ness and Chorney will get more time to adjust. It is the start of the season and it is unlikely Trotz will abandon the pair altogether after just one game.

But they will certainly need a better performance than what they showed on Thursday if they hope to stick.