When the Carolina Hurricanes last visited Verizon Center two weeks ago, they were a depleted bunch, especially on the blueline. Four of the six defensemen the Hurricanes dressed for their Feb. 26 date with the Capitals in the District went into that contest with fewer than 100 games worth of NHL experience.
The Canes were missing top blueliners Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen in that 3-0 loss to Washington, and only a stellar performance from goaltender Cam Ward – now also sidelined with an injury – kept the score respectable.
Washington made it a point to try to exploit Carolina’s inexperience on the blueline that night, and it succeeded.
“They had a few injuries on the back end,” said Oates of the Hurricanes after that Feb. 26 game. “So we talked about really trying to establish a forecheck, and trying to wear them out and make it difficult for them. I really thought for two periods we did a good job.”
Fast forward two weeks, and the skate is on the other foot. Carolina’s backline is still without Pitkanen, but Gleason is back. He and Jamie McBain are in tonight while Marc-Andre Gragnani and Ryan Murphy have returned to from whence they came.
Washington, on the other hand, has three blueliners with fewer than 25 games in the NHL in its lineup tonight. Last Tuesday, defenseman Steve Oleksy made his NHL debut for the Caps against Boston. Tonight, Cameron Schilling makes his NHL debut on the blueline for Washington. Rookie Tomas Kundratek made his NHL debut on the first Tuesday of this season, Jan. 22 against Winnipeg.
When the Canes were in D.C. two weeks ago, the six defensemen they dressed for the game had a combined total of 1, 054 games worth of NHL game among them, led by ex-Cap Joe Corvo with 656.
Tonight, 27-year-old Jeff Schultz (392 games) is Washington’s blueline greybeard. He’s followed by Karl Alzner (239) and John Carlson (210). Kundratek will play in his 24th NHL game tonight and Oleksy will skate in his fifth. That gives Washington a total of 868 career games worth of NHL experience on its backline going into tonight’s contest.
Kundratek and Oleksy both fit into Washington’s lineup rather seamlessly, and the hope is that Schilling can do the same.
“Those guys look like they’re in place right now,” says Caps right win Troy Brouwer. “They don’t look out of place whatsoever. Oly has stepped in, and he’s been doing a phenomenal job in his first [four] games here. So the scouts are doing their jobs and calling up the right guys and making sure that the guys that deserve to be here are playing right now.”
Washington’s four injured defensemen – Tom Poti, John Erskine, Mike Green and Jack Hillen – have played a combined total of 1,907 games in the NHL.
Tonight’s projected group of Carolina defensemen has a combined total of 1,763 games worth of NHL experience under its collective belt.
Carolina has won five of its six games (5-1) since its last visit to the District two weeks ago, and the Canes have been getting it done at even-strength. In their last 20 periods of hockey, the Hurricanes have scored 28 goals, with 26 of those tallies coming at even strength.
Although it’s the first game of the season’s second half, it’s a must-win game for the Capitals as is Thursday’s game against the Canes in Raleigh. Carolina comes into tonight’s game with an eight-point lead in the Southeast Division. Washington needs a pair of regulation wins tonight and Thursday in order to shrink the Canes’ lead to four points with 22 games to play at that point.
“Everyone in this room knows the magnitude of these two games,” says Brouwer. “We’re not looking forward to the second game quite yet; we’ve got business to take care of tonight, a very important game tonight. Guys are excited to play these two games, but we’re going to start with the one tonight.”
Guys are excited to play these two games, and others are excited just to be back on the ice. After missing the first half of the season with a lower body injury, Caps center Brooks Laich took to the ice with his teammates for this morning’s skate.
“It’s been a lot of work,” says Laich of the long road back to the lineup. “You guys don’t see it, but it’s been a lot of work. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. Physically, it’s a lot of work but mentally it’s probably even more draining. But hopefully it’s all for good.
“We have a great medical staff that has really helped me and pushed me in the right direction. Hopefully, I’ll be back soon.”
Caps defenseman Mike Green (lower body injury) was also on the ice for this morning’s skate. Similar to Laich, Green is improving. But there is no timetable for the return of either player.