ARLINGTON, Va. – Todd Reirden did not have much time before the playoffs to find a way to replace Michal Kempny on the blue line. Now one game into the postseason, the defense still remains very much a work in progress for the Capitals.
Washington escaped with a 4-2 Game 1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday after getting outshot 29-18 on the night. That is to be expected considering Carolina is a high shot volume team while the Caps are very selective in when they fire the puck. Having said that, however, this does not seem like a long-term recipe for success:
#NHL playoff teams: 5-on-5 shot attempts in Game 1— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) April 12, 2019
Maple Leafs 49
Blue Jackets 43
Golden Knights 39
Capitals 23 pic.twitter.com/HzUX9pYEta
And neither does the defense as it is currently constructed.
When Kempny suffered a torn hamstring in March, the search for his replacement began soon after. Reirden used a number of different players alongside John Carlson to find the right combination, but none of those pairings stood. Instead of choosing one as his new top pair, Reirden now uses multiple different looks over the course of a game.
At the start of Game 1, Carlson played his off-side on the left with fellow righty Nick Jensen on the right. There were also times when Carlson moved back to the right with Brooks Orpik or Christian Djoos playing on the left.
“I think you saw a lot of different combinations yesterday,” Reirden said Friday after practice, “But the primary one is Jensen and his ability to be able to skate and take away time and space from the opposition. He’s hard in areas around our net. He’s willing to block shots and competes hard.”
The results were not overwhelmingly positive except for on the scoreboard.
Jensen struggled in what was his first NHL playoff game. One of his real strengths as a player is breaking the puck out of the defensive zone, but that proved difficult against Carolina’s aggressive forecheck. In the first period he got caught behind the goal line and tried to pass through the middle right in front of the Caps’ own net in the face of the forecheck. It was a bad mistake that could have proved costly.
“I think I played a little too much D-zone and not enough in the O-zone so we've got to find a way to get the puck out of the zone a little better and put them in their zone a little more,” Jensen said.
“It’s a learning process for all players and especially playoff hockey is a whole different entity,” Reirden said. “I thought [Jensen] did some good things and some things that can be improved on as well.”
Faith in Djoos seemed to dissipate quickly as he played less than eight minutes for the entire game. He was on the ice for only 1:13 in the third period, but was still on the ice for both of Carolina’s goals.
Reirden said after the game that Djoos’ lack of ice time was based more on the situation than on his play.
“In that situation last night and in the third period with him playing a little bit less, we had two penalties to kill and then we're in a situation where we're 5-on-6,” Reirden said. “We talk all the time about putting players in a situation to succeed. If we were behind that game 3-2 then it probably would have been reversed, but in that situation I felt Orpik was having a strong game. Those were his strengths as a player. That's going to kind of dictate it as well. For me it's situational, for me it's who's having a good game? Who’s had an impact in the defensive zone?”
Reirden also cited the team’s breakouts as an area in which the defense needed to improve.
“I thought [the Hurricanes] were extremely aggressive,” he said. “Again, they didn’t do anything that surprised us. We’ve seen them. They’re a well-coached team that has discipline in terms of how they do things systematically. We knew that they were going to be down aggressively on the forecheck with their defense pinching down often. And for us just the execution of coming out of the defensive zone with possession or getting opportunities from them being aggressive like that could be executed a little bit better. That’s a five-man unit. In terms of our defense, the better and the quicker we can move it to our skill players the better.”
There were a few positives on defense for Washington worth noting. The team did a tremendous job of clearing rebounds given up by Braden Holtby out of danger, preventing many second-chance opportunities for the Hurricanes.
“We knew that they are a high shot-volume team, but I think we did a pretty good job of taking sticks away in front and those second rebounds,” Jensen said. “Those second chances, what they won, that's how they score. They get pucks to the net and then everyone's scrambling in front of the net and then they get those backdoor tap-ins. I think we did a good job protecting kind of those second chances that they had.”
Another positive was Orpik who was great and was easily Washington’s second-best blueliner on the night next to Carlson.
“I thought he was physical and hard and no fun to play against,” Reirden said.
Orpik’s physical play throughout the game was one of the team’s biggest highlights for Game 1. Against a quick, transitional offense like that of Carolina’s, wearing them down through physical play can be an effective means of slowing them down.
“Sometimes you see the result of [physical play] in game and then sometimes it takes more than a couple games to start affecting them,” Orpik said. “I think we know that from the last couple years. You usually see the results at some point.”
While his performance was encouraging, however, it does not bring any clarity in terms of who should play with Carlson. At 38 years old, you cannot expect Orpik to play top-pair minutes for very long. The 17:27 he played on Thursday is about where you want to keep his playing time. Carlson played 18:31 of 5-on-5 time alone in Game 1, not including power play time. That is too much to ask of Orpik who also is one of the team’s top penalty killers.
It makes sense to want to keep Orpik and Carlson together, but you have to limit that time. The question is with who? Jensen must improve on his Game 1 performance to justify staying on the top pair. Even if he does, it still remains fair to wonder if it makes sense to put Carlson, your best defenseman, at a disadvantage by making him play his off-side.
It may be time to explore other possibilities by splitting up Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. That pair has had its struggles over the course of the season but has played markedly better of late. The issue is that by keeping that pair locked in, it limits your options for what you can do with Carlson. If Jensen and Djoos don’t look great on the top pair, then your only other choice is Orpik unless Orlov and Niskanen become options as well.
You also have to wonder about Djoos. Even if limiting his ice time was purely, situational, playing him so few minutes puts a strain on the rest of the defense. Could we see Jonas Siegenthaler get into the lineup at some point? Putting a rookie onto the blue line in the playoffs has obvious risks, but if the bar you are setting is that you just need him to play more than eight minutes, that’s not a high bar.
The stats for Game 1 paint a bleak picture for Washington’s defense. Their performance was not as bad as those metrics make it look and the Caps did in fact walk away with the victory. Over the course of what the team hopes will be another long playoff run, however, the defense will have to be better. The team has to find a top pair it can rely on besides Orpik-Carlson and it has to find a third-pairing defenseman it can depend on for more than eight minutes per game.
It did not cost the Caps on Thursday and it may not cost them in the first round, but when the competition gets tougher each round, the defense we saw on Thursday will not be enough to earn Washington a second Stanley Cup.
“We feel like we can play better,” Reirden said. “We can play better than we did last night.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Back-To-Backstrom: Nicklas Backstrom scores twice in the opening frame
- Playoff Primer: All you need to know about Caps vs. Canes
- Quest For Back-to-Back: Playoff rookies who can help Caps make a deep run