The Capitals played their first real hockey game since Mar. 9, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres. In their lone exhibition match before the three-game round robin to open the postseason, the Capitals beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2. There was so much rust between both sides, the ice nearly turned orange, but hopefully it was enough action to have the Caps primed and ready for their first meaningful game on Aug. 3.
The return of live hockey was much-needed after so many months off, but now it gets serious. Here are my takeaways from the tune-up against Carolina as the team prepares to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first round robin game.
The penalty kill looked fairly sharp
Both teams looked pretty rusty on the outset of the game, which is to be expected, but the PK unit snuffed out every chance pretty easily on the first Canes power play a few minutes in. Subsequent penalty kills in the second period looked good as well, and while the Canes were able to scrap a few good possessions, the defense hunkered down.
The Caps faced a 5-on-3 kill early in the third (way to help out the new guy in net), and despite a couple good opportunities to clear the puck, the Caps just couldn’t get it out and the Canes struck. You could also point to rust on Carolina’s side, but overall the penalty kill looked good.
The power play needs work
After four-and-a-half months off, you can’t expect everything to be on point, but the power play looked pretty rough. It took nearly 90 seconds to actually secure the puck in the offensive zone for the first power play, and they consistently lost the opening face-off in subsequent chances.
Ovi managed to score with just three seconds left in the first power play, but that had more to do with the Canes doing a poor job clearing; they won’t always be that lucky. It may take a few in-game reps to sharpen up, but that can’t afford to be a weak point in the long term.
It took until their fourth attempt to really get a solid possession. Give some credit to Carolina’s penalty kill, but there wasn’t a lot of good to say about the Caps’ unit, which was three seconds away from going 0-for-5.
Not having Samsonov will hurt
This has less to do with the exhibition game, but it should be stressed in general. Braden Holtby was going to start regardless, but Ilya Samsonov was the stronger goalie down the stretch, and would have been a great backup if Holtby falters or gets hurt.
Samsonov is out with an undisclosed injury, and so the Caps will have to rely on their two AHL netminders: Vitek Vanecek, a young netminder with zero NHL experience*, and Pheonix Copley, who has not played at the NHL level since 2018-19 and had lesser numbers than Vanecek in the AHL this year.
The asterisk applies to Vanecek since he actually got his first taste of non-preseason NHL experience tonight, playing the entire third period of the game, although it won’t officially count. The young Czech looked a bit shaky, which would be expected. He failed to secure a few shots that he probably should have, and he allowed a forgivable goal on Carolina’s 5-on-3 power play, but otherwise it was a solid showing.
I stated multiple times that Copley’s experience as a backup goaltender at the NHL level would give him the edge entering the playoffs, but it appears Vanecek may be the choice at No. 2. Holtby’s play tonight didn’t provide any cause for concern, which is good, because the team’s chances at contention essentially live and die with the pending free agent.
Ovechkin looks READY
Alex Ovechkin wasted no time making an impact, scoring from his office to open the scoring midway through the first period. He later assisted Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal, corralling an absolute laser from Dmitry Orlov and placing it right into Kuzy’s stick for a perfect tic-tac-toe goal.
Tom Wilson did most of the work on the third goal, bringing it all the way up from the defensive zone, shrugging off multiple defenders and slinging a perfect pass to set the Great 8 up, but the finish was vintage Ovechkin. The captain is hungry for a second Stanley Cup, and it showed in this exhibition.
The counterattack looks like the best phase of the offense
The first goal can be pointed to a poor clearance on Carolina’s part, but that second goal was purely great forechecking and strong passing. The Caps got a lot of quick turnarounds from the defensive zone in the first period, and that led to all their best chances. As mentioned, the third goal was all Wilson, who pushed a counter by himself.
The offense as a whole was alright, the passing especially looking pretty sharp for first-time game action, but most of the best plays came off Carolina turnovers. This is an encouraging sign.
The possession should only get better as the team gets back into the groove of playing together, and showing the ability to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes will be huge if the team can keep that up through the round robin and beyond. Every team, the Capitals included, will be prone to more mistakes in the early rounds, so the teams who can pounce on those mistakes the most will have an advantage.
This game doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but starting off with a win will hopefully help the team get into a winning groove. Buckle up for Aug. 3, folks, it will be the very first game in what should be a wild summer of hockey.
Cover Photo Credit: The Athletic