Exactly two weeks ago, the Capitals made it part of their game plan to take advantage of an injury-riddled Carolina squad. They focused on establishing puck possession through physical play and on exhausting the most inexperienced portions of their foe’s lineup. The strategy worked well and Washington came away with a 3-0 win.
Tuesday night at Verizon Center, Washington was without Mike Green, John Erskine and Tom Poti because of injury and instead featured three rookies – Tomas Kundratek, Steve Oleksy and Cameron Schilling – on the blue line. The Hurricanes returned the favor. Carolina made exploiting a depleted defense part of its game plan en route to a 4-0 win.
“It was kind of a twist of the last time — we came in with all our injuries and all that, and such a young defense corps,” Carolina Coach Kirk Muller said. “We emphasized that we wanted to get pucks behind their D and go to work and play hard in their zone and all that. I think our guys were smart with their puck placement here tonight. I thought it was just an overall strong game on our part tonight.”
Each of the Capitals’ three defensive pairings was on the ice for at least one goal against. The first, which went off Braden Holtby’s mask, is tough to fault the defensemen for. On the second, Schilling who didn’t tie up Riley Nash in front before he redirected a shot past Holtby. And on the third, Jeff Schultz was beat to a would-be icing touch-up by Patrick Dwyer, who stole the puck, popped out in front and found Nash for a wide-open shot.
“Schultzy’s going as hard as he can and the guy had just a little bit more jump off the play, little bit unlucky,” Coach Adam Oates said. “I would have actually probably thought Holts would have played it for him, but he was giving Schultzy the chance to win that battle and we lost it. We broke down after that.”
While Oates didn’t fault Schultz, the 27-year-old blamed himself.
“It was on me,” Schultz said. “I just went to the wrong side of the net for where the puck was coming from and the guy snuck inside on that close post and was able to get inside position on me and stop the icing and put it out front.”
There were portions of the game when the Capitals struggled to gain puck possession or simply exit their own zone. Carolina managed to hem them inside the defensive blue line in spurts, exposing poor matchups and grinding the energy out of the defensemen.
Oates said he didn’t feel like the Hurricanes were targeting the wounded blue line.
“No, I don’t. The chances were I think 11-7 for us in the game five-on-five, so I can’t say that,” Oates said. “We had breakdowns, but so did they.”
From Carolina’s perspective, though, they clearly did try to take advantage of the less-experienced, banged-up Capitals defense. Given that Washington will likely be without Green and Erskine, at least, when it travels to face the Hurricanes in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday, it’s safe to expect Carolina to try to repeat the strategy.
“For sure. When you’ve got some guys out of the lineup you wanna make sure you put pucks in areas where you can take advantage, and I thought our forecheck was pretty solid and we were in on the attack and controlled pucks down low,” Eric Staal said. “When you’re missing key guys, we know when we were missing some guys it was difficult to break pucks out and we kind of clogged up in our end a few times. We seemed to do that to them a little bit tonight, and we’ve gotta make sure we continue that on Thursday.”