After 142 days since their last game, the Washington Capitals are back! They will tangle with the Carolina Hurricanes in an exhibition game on Wednesday before the Hurricanes start their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifying round series against the New York Rangers on Saturday and the Capitals open their round-robin tournament on Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The teams split their four regular-season games with the Capitals winning the last two, 4-3 in Raleigh on January 3 and 2-0 in the District 10 days later. Action from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto can be seen on NBC Sports Washington locally or NBCSN nationally beginning at 4 PM ET.
The Hurricanes went into the NHL Pause with three straight wins after an adjustment period with a lot of changes at the trade deadline. They finished the regular season with a .596 points percentage, the sixth-best in the Eastern Conference, and a +29 goal differential, fourth. The Hurricanes have made at least the Eastern Conference Final in each of their past three times they qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs even though they have made the tournament just three times in the last 18 years. They beat the Capitals in double overtime of Game 7 during the first round last season.
Carolina’s average of 2.84 goals-against per game was tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for 11th in the NHL this season while their average of 3.19 goals-per-game was also 11th. Their 22.3% power-play efficiency was eighth while their 84% penalty-killing rate was fourth. The Hurricanes’ average of 33.3 shots-per-game ranked third while their average of 29.3 shots-against per game was tied with the Vegas Golden Knights for second, only behind the Philadelphia Flyers (28.7). The Hurricanes’ 54.3% Corsi-for percentage ranked third but their .9122 team save percentage was the sixth-worst.
The team made some big trade deadline acquisitions, acquiring center Vincent Trocheck, who recorded just one goal, two points, a -5 rating in seven games with the Hurricanes, from the Florida Panthers; defenseman Sami Vatanen, who posted five goals, 23 points, a -12 rating in 47 games with the New Jersey Devils this season but did not appear in a game with the Hurricanes due to a lower-body injury; and defenseman Brady Skeij, who tallied an assist and a -4 rating after the trade. The team lost forwards Janne Kuokkanen (Devils), Erik Haula (Panthers), Lucas Wallmark (Panthers), and defenseman Fredrik Claesson (Devils) at the trade deadline.
Center Sebastian Aho led the team with 38 goals, which was tied for sixth in the NHL with Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor, and 66 points in 68 games during the regular season. Forward Teuvo Tervainen led the team with 48 assists while forward Andrei Svechnikov avoided the “sophomore slump” with an impressive season as he recorded 24 goals and 61 points in 68 games. Defensemen Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton, who’s average of 0.85 points-per-game ranked fourth among defenseman to play at least four games, were tied for third in the NHL with a +30 rating. Hamilton did not play after January 16 due to a broken left fibula and will not play against the Capitals, neither will center Martin Necas, who’s 16 goals this season ranked fourth among all NHL rookies while his 36 points were seventh.
Head coach Rod Brind’Amor’s plan in goal for Wednesday’s exhibition game is to split it between Petr Mrazek, who went 21-16-2 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and three shutouts during the regular season, and James Reimer, who went 14-6-2 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.66 goals-against average, and three shutouts. Mrazek is 4-7-2 with a .910 save percentage, a 2.72 goals-against average, and one shutout in 13 career games against the Capitals. Reimer is 5-4-2 with a .930 save percentage, a 2.37 goals-against average, and one shutout in 12 career games against the Capitals.
After a 26-4-5 start to the season, the Capitals went 19-16-3, including 7-9-3 in their final 19 games. The team allowed a league-high 3.58 goals-per-game after January 28. Despite their second-half struggles, the Capitals finished the regular season only two points behind the Lightning for second in the Eastern Conference and played one fewer game than they did. Overall, they posted a .652 points percentage. The team will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight season and twelfth time in the last 13. They finished with the best record in the Metropolitan Division during the regular season for the fifth straight year.
The Capitals’ average of 3.42 goals-per-game was only behind the Lightning among the NHL ranks this season but their average of 3.07 goals-against per game was the seventh-worst. Their 19.4% power-play efficiency ranked 17th (but 28th with a 15.6% efficiency after December 8) but their penalty kill was sixth with a 82.6% killing rate. The team’s average of 32 shots per game ranked 11th while their average of 30.2 shots-against per game was ninth. Their 51.6% Corsi-for percentage was seventh in the NHL but their .9125 team save percentage was the eighth-worst.
In an effort to bolster their defense, the team acquired Brenden Dillon, who recorded a 51.12% Corsi-for percentage, a 54.44% expected goals-for percentage, and -2 rating in 10 games with the team, from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 conditional third-round pick. To add some scoring punch to their bottom-six forward group, the team acquired Ilya Kovalchuk, who posted a goal and four points in seven games after the trade, from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2020 third-round pick.
Defenseman John Carlson, a Norris Trophy finalist, ranked fourth in the NHL with 60 assists and tied Rangers center Mika Zibanejad for 12th with 75 points this season but declined after he posted 11 goals, 43 points, and a +20 rating in his first 31 games of the season. He recorded only four goals, 32 points, and a -8 rating in his final 38 games. After scoring 22 goals in his final 22 regular-season games, captain Alex Ovechkin‘s 48 goals tied Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for the NHL lead. In addition, he posted eight goals and 10 points in his final 10 games before the pause, which followed a five-game goal drought.
Head coach Todd Reirden is planning to give goaltender Braden Holtby, who went 25-14-6 with a career-low .897 save percentage and a career-high 3.11 goals-against average during the regular season, the first two periods of Wednesday’s game. The 30-year-old is 16-7-1 with a .931 save percentage, a 2.15 goals-against average, and two shutouts in 24 career games against the Hurricanes. Either Pheonix Copley, who went 16-7-3 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.90 goals-against average, and one shutout with the Capitals last season and posted a .905 save percentage and a 2.47 goals-against average with the AHL’s Hershey Bears this season, or Vitek Vanecek, who posted a .917 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average with the Bears this season, will play the other period. Vanecek has yet to play an NHL game in his career.
By Harrison Brown