The Capitals left Capital One Arena on Thursday with a 4-2 win and in the end that was the most important thing. A 3-0 lead against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of a Stanley Cup playoff first-round series threatened to melt away. Washington held on down the stretch. It leads the series 1-0. That’s new! Last season the Capitals lost Game 1 to Columbus, Pittsburgh and Vegas, but won the Stanley Cup anyway. It’s tough to always crawl out of a hole and just because they did it then doesn’t mean they want a repeat.
There were plenty of nuggets to take from Game 1. Many positive, but not all. Here are a few observations.
The Capitals blueline remains a work-in-progress
Last year, The Capitals had 20 games to get trade deadline pickup Michal Kempny plenty of time with defensive partner John Carlson. But Kempny is gone now, lost for the season with a hamstring injury. And the effort to find some stability there has a ways to go during 5-on-5 play.
Carlson started the game with Nick Jensen (10:10), spent time with Christian Djoos (:46) – that led to a goal in the third period, which appeared to be on Carlson - and also Brooks Orpik (5:45). Only the Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen pairing stayed intact. They played 18:12 together. Capitals coach Todd Reirden wasn’t messing with that duo.
But there are complications. Players downplay it, but Carlson has to shift to the left side when he’s with Jensen and back to his natural right side when with Orpik. That affects all kinds of things from the angle you take to your footwork to how you make an outlet pass. Jensen took shifts with Orpik (2:06) and Djoos (2:24) and that latter duo was scored upon, too.
Capitals played a hard, physical game. Now they need to do it smarter
There were plenty of big hits in the first period from forwards Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Brooks Orpik. That’s been Washington’s calling card the past few seasons. It is a big, heavy team that can wear down an opponent. We saw it in the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay last spring. But they didn’t have the puck enough in Game 1 and they didn’t get it into positions where the Carolina defensemen would pay the price to retrieve the puck near their own net.
“When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re able to get in and forecheck with a physical presence and a physical element,” Reirden said after practice on Friday. “That’s all players. Not just certain guys.”
That means T.J. Oshie, whose relentless play helped fuel last year’s championship run. Even Andre Burakovsky laid low a couple of Hurricanes players on Thursday. Reirden really does mean everyone. You will know the Caps are playing well in Game 2 on Saturday if they’re more committed to putting pucks in places where the Hurricanes will feel the heat.
Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek is boom-or-bust
The Hurricanes goalie has had big games against the Capitals before, especially when he played for the Detroit Red Wings. The Caps did what they had to do early in the game, which is crucial to tweak Mrazek’s confidence. As he gains steam, he can make some impossible saves look easy. Nick Backstrom used a tricky move to set up Mrazek’s own defenseman as a screen on his goal in the first period. It looked like a shot he should have stopped from the top of the right faceoff circle. But Mrazek isn’t a big man. He couldn’t see the puck. He didn’t even react. You can argue that one is on him. The result is the same. An early, deflating goal for Carolina to allow. The Caps power play went to work after that and it was 3-0.
But it never got to four until the net was empty and nerves were tight. That’s because he stayed calm on a Nic Dowd breakaway at 2:29 of the third period with the score still 3-0. Dowd was angry at himself. “Oh, you mean the one I shot right into his chest?” But he also spoiled Carl Hagelin at 3:31 of the third. Again, it was a breakaway. Hagelin’s shriek of frustration could be heard in the press box at the top of the arena. His backhand move didn’t work. Then at 4:55 of the third, Jakub Vrana finds Brett Connolly all alone in front.
Game over, right? Nope. Mrazek holds his ground, makes a pad save and calmly sticks with it as Lars Eller slams a rebound at him. The Capitals paid for that sequence. Instead a 4-0 lead, the Hurricanes quickly pushed the puck up ice and Andrei Svechnikov bull rushed around John Carlson and scored. Just like that Mrazek had some confidence despite the loss. Now – does it carry over to Game 2?
Special teams might spell the difference in this series
The Capitals best players played with an intensity on the power we haven’t seen in a long time. They seemed to glide through stretches of the regular season certain their talent would lead to goals. It doesn’t work that way, though. You have to go after pucks, you have to make quick decisions. They did that on goals by Backstrom – the Hurricanes were too preoccupied with Ovechkin to notice him all alone at the left post – and Ovechkin, who was so hungry for a loose puck he knocked Tom Wilson to the ice getting there.
The Hurricanes need to get better in a hurry here. They had a power-play advantage late in the game down 3-2 and couldn’t convert. They managed just three shots on three power-play chances. That last one, hurt, though. Let’s let Hurricanes forward Justin Williams explain in his own inimitable way:
“The power play was crap and the penalty kill was crap also,” Williams said. “I mean, listen, they’re going to get opportunities, obviously, but there’s a couple little things we looked at to do the best we can to nullify that and a couple things we looked at on the power play as well to be more impactful.”
Williams added: “I say it every time: shots, tips, screens, rebounds. That’s what a power play is about. Your best players are usually on the ice and they need to make plays for us. So, when it’s not successful, you look at yourself in the mirror, you look at video, you check it out and say, ‘All right, this is what I can do better.’ And that’s what we did today.”
The Hurricanes don’t mess around
No surprise that the team with the most shots on goal in the NHL has an aggressive philosophy. Carolina will shoot the puck from anywhere and everywhere on the ice. They had 59 shot attempts at even strength to just 23 for the Capitals. That margin seems absurd. But it’s a function of how they play. The Capitals have to be opportunistic. They had multiple breakaways they didn’t finish. They have to produce on special teams. Only one of those things happened on Thursday.
And when Carolina’s defensemen pinch deep into the offensive zone, Washington has to be able to skate it out of trouble and execute those breakaways when they get the chance. It’s a counter-punch mentality similar to the way the Penguins beat the Capitals two years in a row in the playoffs in 2016 and 2017. Washington often left those games thinking it had the better of the play. Pittsburgh often left with wins because it’s high-end talent was able to counter and score.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Back-To-Backstrom: Nicklas Backstrom scores twice in the opening frame
- Quest For Back-to-Back: Playoff rookies who can help Caps make a deep run
- Playoff Primer: All you need to know about Caps vs. Canes