RALEIGH — The Capitals were ahead in this Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, but not in control.
Monday night’s Game 3 proved that as the minutes came and went and Washington couldn’t so much as put a shot on goal against Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek until well into the second period. Here are some things we learned about both teams heading into a critical Game 4 here in Raleigh.
This is unsustainable
The shot totals were always going to be out of whack in this series. The Hurricanes put shots on goal from all over the ice. They’ve been doing it all year. Hell, they’ve been doing it for a few years now. And their goal results never quite live up to what you’d expect. That’s lack of skilled depth more than anything. The Capitals are the opposite – a group of skilled snipers up and down the lineup who are selective, maybe to a fault. They possess the puck less than most title contenders and yet score just fine. But this series is testing the limits of that strategy. Carolina has 81 shots at 5-on-5 play. The Capitals have 45. Again, some of that is by design. But much of that is the Hurricanes dominating puck possession.
Special teams struggles
In Game 1, special-teams play saved the Capitals, who only had 12 shots during 5-on-5 play. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin each scored on the power play in the first period and it was 3-0 before you could blink. That has slowly changed and you wonder if the series is changing with it.
Washington is 0-for-10 since Ovechkin scored at 18:05 of the first period of Game 1. The Capitals have only 15 shots on goal in those 10 chances and looked especially shaky in Game 3 on Monday as the Hurricanes pressured the puck all over the ice. They need quicker puck movement because their skill players are getting smothered right now. They also need to hit the net. Too many shots are rushed and going wide. There won’t be many more easy one-timers for Ovechkin from the left circle.
And if Carolina is going to continue to dominate 5-on-5 play, Washington sure can’t allow the penalty kill to slip. Hurricanes defensemen Dougie Hamilton scored twice on the power play to put Game 3 out of reach. These are small sample sizes, but Carolina has scored on 3-of-10 power plays since getting blanked in Game 1.
Reirden talked about getting defenseman Christian Djoos more playing time after he was under 10 minutes in both Games 1 and 2. But after an early turnover led to a Carolina goal, you wonder how much more of a leash Djoos has. The truth is the blueline has been in flux since Michal Kempny’s March 20 season-ending hamstring injury. He was the perfect complement to John Carlson and now the Capitals are left struggling to fit their pieces together. Nick Jensen isn’t comfortable on the left side, but playing Carlson there isn’t ideal.
Reirden will say in this system players are used to crossing sides of the ice, that it shouldn’t be an issue, that the adjustments are minor. And that’s certainly true. But THESE players don’t have much ice time together and you can’t predict chemistry and communication and all the rest. It doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul. The Capitals still have Braden Holtby playing pretty well in goal and they did win the first two games. But maybe roles become a little clearer if Dmitry Orlov plays with Carlson and Brooks Orpik plays with Matt Niskanen and Jonas Siegenthaler jumps into the lineup with Jensen. That’s a tough ask of Siegenthaler against an opponent that can skate like Carolina so maybe Djoos gets a reprieve. But Reirden needs to find an answer here. The Capitals couldn’t escape their own zone for long stretches of Game 3 and while the Hurricanes deserve great credit for that, an adjustment needs to be made.
There’s no question that was an unsettling loss. Probably Washington’s worst since Game 7 against the Rangers in the first round, a 5-0 blowout. But maybe the 6-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 2 at home in 2016 is a better example. That left them down 0-2. Yet many of these same players responded with an overtime win in Game 3. It’s the same team that trailed in every series last year and faced elimination twice. It is a great advantage to have a team that knows it can shake off a loss like that one, with the mental toughness to handle playing on the road in front of a roaring crowd. PNC Arena was blisteringly loud for Game 3 and you can expect more of that on Thursday. There was little outward panic of frustration in the locker room after the 5-0 loss, just resolve. We’ll see if that holds, but it’s nice to draw upon.
“You just don’t think about it,” Ovechkin said. “I think we learned from last year. We’ve been in bad situations. We’ve been in worse, but we stick together. Game by game. Win or lose, we forget it and move forward.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
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- Say What?: Brind’Amour disputes Ovi’s account on the Svechnikov fight
- 'He Asked Me to Fight': Why Ovi dropped the gloves with Svechnikov
- Embarrassing: Caps shut out by Hurricanes 5-0