Here are the five biggest questions about the Washington Capitals’ first-round matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes, which begins Thursday night.
Which Kuznetsov will show up?
Evgeny Kuznetsov was at his best last spring while leading the league in postseason scoring with 32 points in 24 games. But that was followed by an inconsistent regular season. At one point, Kuznetsov went 22 consecutive games without scoring at five-on-five. He also took the most minor penalties among Capitals forwards and ranked last among qualifying NHL centers in faceoff success rate. Through it all, Kuznetsov preached patience. He’d be at his best come springtime, he said. The Capitals can’t afford for him not to be. “He’s an important part of our team,” said GM Brian MacLellan. “We expect him to play like he did last year.”
How will Caps’ D fare without Kempny?
Among the biggest questions surrounding the Capitals is how they will fill the void left by defenseman Michal Kempny, who is lost for the season with a torn hamstring that he suffered March 20. The timing of the injury left little opportunity to adjust down the stretch and the blueline remains a fluid situation. Nick Jensen is expected to take Kempny’s spot alongside John Carlson on the No. 1 pair but that leaves the Capitals with two righties in that tandem. Carlson is set to play his offside on the left, but don’t be surprised to see veteran Brooks Orpik, 38, leaned on heavily in late-game situations.
Can Carolina keep up second-half surge?
Thanks to an edge in experience, depth and goaltending — among other areas — the Capitals are heavily favored on paper to beat the Hurricanes in Round 1. Still, Washington knows better than to take Carolina lightly. Coach Rod Brind’Amour and Carolina used an incredible second-half surge to secure its first playoff berth in 10 years, and the Hurricanes have been playing desperate, playoff-style hockey for a few months. The Hurricanes were 10 points out of a playoff spot when they woke up on New Year’s Eve, but they enter the playoffs on a 31-12-2 run since Dec. 31 — the third-best record over that stretch.
Can Washington slow down Aho?
The Hurricanes are loaded with young talent, including noted Capitals killer Sebastian Aho. In 12 career games against Washington, Aho, 21, has eight goals and 17 points. For the season, Carolina’s No. 1 center had a team-best 30 goals and 83 points. The task of limiting Aho and Carolina’s top trio will likely fall on Washington’s second line of Carl Hagelin, Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. Coach Todd Reirden deployed that line in that role in a home-and-home series sweep of Carolina in late March. Aho was limited to one assist in the two games. “It’s a tough task,” Oshie said. “We’ll take pride in trying to shut them down and almost have a little bit of a series within the series.”
Who will be Caps’ secondary scorers?
The Capitals had a league-high seven 20-goal scorers this season and that scoring depth bodes well for a deep playoff run. While teams lean on their top players in the postseason, the value of contributions down the depth chart can’t be overstated. Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly were among the unsung heroes last spring, and Washington will look for similar from the bottom six this year. Eller is expected to be joined by 20-goal scorers Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly on an offensively potent third line, while Andre Burakovsky gives the Capitals a potential game-breaker on their fourth line.