RALEIGH, N.C. — Dougie Hamilton faced the crowd, stretched out his arms and then leaped into the glass where Stormy, the Carolina Hurricanes’ hog mascot, had his paws smacking the barrier, celebrating with the rest of a rejuvenated fan base. The Washington Capitals came to PNC Arena with a comfortable lead in this first-round series, and after the first playoff game here in 10 years, the defending Stanley Cup champions left the building with their biggest weakness exposed and their opponent suddenly surging.
In a defensive disaster on all fronts, the Capitals struggled to get the puck out of their end all night in a 5-0 Game 3 loss to the Hurricanes, trimming Washington’s series lead to 2-1. This was on everyone — the five-man, team defense that propelled the squad during last season’s title run was nowhere to be found. But the Capitals don’t have blue-liner Michal Kempny this time around, either, and that could be a bigger issue than previously imagined.
Washington managed just one shot in the entire second period as Carolina pelted goaltender Braden Holtby with 18 and scored a pair of goals. By the time the final horn mercifully sounded, the Hurricanes had 45 shots to the Capitals’ 18, which included a roughly 40-minute stretch in which Washington had just two. Especially embarrassing for the Capitals is that the Hurricanes dominated them without two of their best forwards; Micheal Ferland suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury after hitting Tom Wilson, and Andrei Svechnikov was knocked out by Alex Ovechkin in a surprising first-period fight.
“We didn’t execute anything,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “And we were just slow. We didn’t play with speed. They obviously play the way they wanted to play and got some goals and got energy from that.”
Some of the issues that plagued Washington on Monday had cropped up in the first two games, too, when Carolina arguably carried the play. The Capitals were just able to jump out to multi-goal leads in the first period in those games, which in turn led to the Hurricanes playing even more aggressively and then giving up odd-man rushes. On Monday, Carolina scored the first goal for the first time, and Washington couldn’t recover.
“Just being a little more consistent with that execution from the [defensemen] to the forwards and from the forwards usually out of the zone, we can make them pay,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But not without execution.”
That execution has been lacking since Washington lost Kempny, who tore his left hamstring with nine games left in the regular season, and the Capitals still haven’t quite figured out how to replace him. He was acquired before the trade deadline last season, and his slick skating made for a perfect complement beside Carlson. Kempny helped get the puck up the ice perhaps better than any other defenseman in the top four this season, and that’s why he and Carlson evolved into Washington’s top pairing as Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen uncharacteristically struggled.
Without Kempny, the Capitals have a handful of options to play with Carlson, but none of them are ideal. Replacing a top-four defenseman was never going to be easy, and it would be problematic for any team. Coach Todd Reirden tried Christian Djoos to Carlson’s left, but while Djoos has had success in a sheltered, third-pairing role, it’s evident Washington doesn’t trust him to play the minutes and matchups a top-four blue-liner is typically tasked with playing.
More concerning is that Reirden has apparently lost trust in Djoos altogether, deploying him for fewer than seven minutes per game over the first two games of the series, in part because Djoos doesn’t play on special teams and in part because he has now been on the ice for four Hurricanes goals in limited time. He played 8:40 on Monday because the Capitals needed the offensive lift he can occasionally provide, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Reirden will turn to rookie Jonas Siegenthaler for Game 4 on Thursday.
That won’t solve Washington’s conundrum in the top four. The team acquired Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings before the trade deadline, and he fits the Kempny mold of a mobile, puck-moving blue-liner. But his fit hasn’t been nearly as seamless, and this is the first postseason of his NHL career. The Red Wings’ system wasn’t as fluid as the Capitals’, so while Washington defensemen often end up on their off side throughout the course of a game, Jensen has struggled with that. That’s why the right-handed Carlson has been playing the left side to start this postseason — the team’s best defenseman playing out of position.
Carlson and Reirden have downplayed the adjustment, but that’s something teams can plan to take advantage of in a series, forcing Carlson to make breakout passes up the middle where they can be easily picked off.
On Monday night, the Capitals were on their heels defending so much that they took penalties, which resulted in two power-play goals.
No one in Washington’s dressing room was panicked after the loss, even if it was embarrassing, and the Capitals are still favored to win this series. But if their bid to repeat as Stanley Cup champions falls short with a near-identical roster, it’ll probably come back to one significant personnel difference.