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Capitals defense aims to hold steady in NHL restart

The Washington Capitals will play an exhibition game against Carolina in Toronto on Wednesday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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As the Washington Capitals embark on their trip north, sights set on hoisting another Stanley Cup, their blueprint to success in the postseason will rely heavily on a steady blue line.

After the news Saturday that backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov suffered an injury before the NHL restart and would not travel with the team to Toronto, the depth of the defense will be critical in the summer tournament.

The Capitals will bring 10 defensemen to Toronto: John Carlson, Michal Kempny, Brenden Dillon, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler, Nick Jensen, Radko Gudas, Martin Fehervary, Tyler Lewington and Alex Alexeyev. Barring any injuries or novel coronavirus-related setbacks, the team is expected to roll with the Carlson and Kempny on the top pairing, Dillon and Orlov on the second and Siegenthaler and Jensen on the third. Gudas is expected to be the first defenseman off the bench to fill any holes.

Ilya Samsonov will not travel with Caps for NHL restart after suffering injury during shutdown

However, even with a Norris Trophy finalist in Carlson, the Capitals’ blue line was inconsistent for weeks before the season was paused because of the pandemic in mid-March.

The ups and downs were most noticeable with the top pairing of Carlson and Kempny. After the acquisition of Dillon from the San Jose Sharks in February, Kempny moved from the top pair to the third pair with Gudas, limiting Kempny’s ice time and forcing him to adjust the way he plays.

Kempny, who underwent surgery in April 2019 for a torn left hamstring, never felt 100 percent during the season, which hindered his play. Only now, a year and almost four months later, is Kempny fully recovered and feeling “fresh.” A healthy Kempny not only would benefit Carlson but also keep from disrupting the other two pairings, which are still fairly new.

Dillon, who played in only 10 games for the Capitals before the season was paused, and Orlov, who is playing on his off side in this pairing, have never started a game together. They were set to start their first game together March 12, when the Capitals were supposed to play the Detroit Red Wings at Capital One Arena. However, that game was never played because of the coronavirus shutdown.

The Dillon and Orlov pairing was experimented with in multiple games before the pause, and Coach Todd Reirden has reiterated on many occasions that he believes Orlov will fare well playing on the right side. Orlov played on his right growing up in Russia — where left-handed defensemen actually play more on the right — and Orlov said he is capable of doing so in the postseason.

“I think Dmitry’s a guy that has that ability, does end up there in the game at times. I think the ice opens up for him on the right side in terms of his ability to transition the puck,” Reirden said.

Additionally, Dillon, who typically looks for his partner first, probably will be able to load up Orlov for more offensive chances. They also likely will be a shutdown pair, similar to the role Matt Niskanen and Orlov played during the 2018 Stanley Cup run.

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The team’s third pair in Siegenthaler and Jensen could be a critical bend-but-not-break pairing. Both made their NHL playoff debuts in the 2018-19 season, when the Capitals fell in the first round to the Carolina Hurricanes. Siegenthaler, 23, played in four of the seven games during that series, while Jensen played in all seven games. Jensen averaged 18:43 minutes of ice time in that series, while Siegenthaler averaged 16 minutes.

This season, Siegenthaler played in 64 games for the Capitals, averaging 15:44 minutes of ice time and recording nine points (two goals, seven assists). Jensen, who saw encouraging growth in his game right before the pause, played in 68 games and averaged 17:49 minutes of ice time.

Over the four weeks before the pause, Jensen was quickly becoming one of the team’s steadiest blue-liners. With his consistency and confidence increasing, Jensen felt as if he was finally hitting his stride and playing some of his “best hockey on this team.” Still, the season included rough patches for Jensen, whom Reirden repeatedly called “a work in progress.”

“To kind of be at that peak and kind of have to take this whole break, it kind of sucks. . . . I don’t really know what it’s going to be like coming back, because I’ve never gone through something like this before,” Jensen said. “But it’s something I’m going to have to get in the game and kind of roll with the punches and try to get that kind of confidence back, get back to that level of play as soon as I can.”

Extras for the Capitals postseason run will be Gudas, Fehervary, Lewington and Alexeyev, the latter of whom is not expected to hit the ice during the playoffs, barring unforeseen circumstances. Gudas, who played in 63 games for the Capitals this season, is a pending free agent and was a healthy scratch in four of the team’s last five games before the shutdown. Fehervary, who made his NHL debut this year with the Capitals, played in six games and provides young but lauded depth.

Note: The Capitals traveled to Toronto on Sunday via a charter plane, bringing 31 players with them into the NHL’s designated bubble. All expected regulars except for Samsonov made the trip. The extra players for the postseason run are Fehervary, Lewington, Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Philippe Maillet, Brian Pinho, Beck Malenstyn, Daniel Sprong, Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek.

Read more on the Washington Capitals:

As NHL returns, Capitals players and fans try to balance escapism and safety

Veteran Capitals confident they can win another Stanley Cup

With babies due, Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin prepare to enter — and leave — NHL bubble

The NHL moves north for its restart, shifting to Canada as U.S. struggles with pandemic