Shortening the bench is a pretty common practice for coaches in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Todd Reirden would prefer the workload on the Washington Capitals’ blue line not be quite this lopsided. Through the first two games of this first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Capitals have three defensemen — John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov — averaging more than 22 minutes a game. Brooks Orpik is next, skating an average of 18:02, and Nick Jensen is at 16:42.
Then there’s Christian Djoos, who has played fewer than 14 total minutes through the first two games for an average of 6:46. Reirden has explained some of that as situational — Djoos doesn’t play on the power play or the penalty kill, and these games have been heavy on the special teams — but Reirden also doesn’t believe playing Carlson nearly 27 minutes a night for what the team hopes is another long playoff run is sustainable.
“I’m very confident in those three players, and I think Brooks has played really well, too,” Reirden said Sunday. “Jensen, I thought, had a stronger game yesterday than he did in Game 1, so that’s encouraging, and then we’ve got to use Djoos more often. That’s probably not sustainable for the entire playoffs, but in the way the games played themselves out, that was what we wanted to go with at the time and what we felt gave us the best chance to win. Those numbers can change given how the game’s playing, and who’s playing the best hockey back there will continue to get more ice time.”
That answers the question of whether the Capitals might consider a change on the blue line, subbing in rookie Jonas Siegenthaler. The 24-year-old Djoos averaged 10:51 in 22 playoff games for Washington last season, but since he missed two months of the season after compartment syndrome in his thigh, the Capitals haven’t seen him quite return to his level of play from earlier in the year. Djoos was on the ice for both of Carolina’s goals in Game 1 and then again for the first Hurricanes tally Saturday afternoon.
Carolina’s minutes on the blue line have been even more disparate than Washington’s. Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk have both skated 26-plus per game, while 22-year-old Haydn Fleury has played even less than Djoos with an average ice time of 5:51.
“That’s just generally how it works,” Hurricanes Coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You pretty much look at every playoff series, and that’s kind of how it goes. I think the strength of our team are our four guys back there, and we try to get them on as much as possible.”
Said Reirden: “Once things settle down and special teams don’t become such a factor, then I really like our team as a four-line, six-defensemen playing — obviously different amounts of ice time, but I want to use everybody. It’s a big factor to having success down the road.”
No supplemental discipline for Hamilton
As the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has had to get involved in two other Eastern Conference first-round series — Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov was suspended for Game 3 against Columbus, and Toronto’s Nazem Kadri could be out the remainder of the series against Boston — the league is staying out of the Washington-Carolina matchup for now. Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton won’t face any supplemental discipline for his elbow to the head of Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Hamilton was assessed a minor penalty, but there’s a big gap between what’s an illegal play and what’s a suspension-worthy one. In the Department of Player Safety’s view, there wasn’t enough force here to elevate this to the level of supplemental discipline.
Third goaltender swap
The Capitals are keeping a third goaltender around for the postseason, not that there’s anything wrong with Braden Holtby or backup Pheonix Copley. Earlier in the week, Reirden called it “standard practice.” After top prospect Ilya Samsonov, the organization’s 2015 first-round pick, was in Washington for the first two games, the Capitals returned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey and recalled Vitek Vanecek instead. He will be with the team for Games 3 and 4 in Raleigh.
Hershey’s playoffs will begin Friday, and Washington sent down Samsonov so he could start in the Bears’ game Sunday against the Hartford Wolf Pack, the regular season finale.
“We’ll continue to address it every day and every few days, but for right now this is going exactly as we had planned it,” Reirden said. “We’ll readjust after probably Tuesday and look at how we want to do things from there. It’s a great opportunity for both Samsonov and Vanecek to be able to be up here and be a part of this and then still remain active in Hershey.”