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5 Keys: Hurricanes at Capitals, Game 1

Carolina hopes goalie Mrazek stays hot; Washington must piece together defense without Kempny

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer


7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVAS2, NBCSWA, FS-CR


The Washington Capitals begin their bid to repeat as Stanley Cup champions by playing the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round at Capital One Arena on Thursday.

Washington (48-26-8) finished first in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth straight season. Carolina (46-29-7) went 31-12-2 from Dec. 31 on to clinch the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference for its first postseason berth since 2009.

The Capitals won all four games between the teams during the regular season, including one in a shootout. This is the first time the Capitals and Hurricanes are meeting in the playoffs.

Here are 5 keys for Game 1:


1. Experience

The Capitals have a decided advantage in this area. Their expected Game 1 lineup totals 1,282 games of NHL playoff experience; defenseman Nick Jensen and forward Nic Dowd are will make their postseason debuts, as would backup goalie Pheonix Copley if he plays. The Hurricanes' expected lineup has combined for 342 games of playoff experience with 10 making their debuts: forwards Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Brock McGinn, Lucas Wallmark, Warren Foegele and Jordan Martinook, and defensemen Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Haydn Fleury.

The Hurricanes will rely heavily on captain Justin Williams (140 games of playoff experience, three Stanley Cup rings) and center Jordan Staal (73 games, one Stanley Cup ring) early in the series while the Capitals attempt to make an early push to test their poise.

"For our guys who haven't been in that situation, that's where it gets tough," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "It's the mental toughness part of the game. You've got to be able to grind. We've done that all year, and you've got to be able to stick with it."


2. Kuznetsov vs. Aho

The Capitals likely will match center Evgeny Kuznetsov's line, with Carl Hagelin and T.J. Oshie, against Aho's line, with Nino Niederreiter and Williams, with the hope not only of neutralizing the Hurricanes' top line but also outscoring them.

Aho set NHL career-highs in goals (30), assists (53) and points (83) but faded late in the season and had no goals and six assists in the final 14 games. But the 21-year-old had six points (three goals, three assists) in the four games against the Capitals this season and has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in 12 career games against Washington.

The Capitals need Kuznetsov to rebound from an inconsistent regular season when he had 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) and be the difference-maker he was when he led the League with 32 playoff points (12 goals, 20 assists) last season.

Video: Surging 'Canes look to topple defending champion Caps


3. Replacing Kempny

With defenseman Michal Kempny out for the season following surgery to repair a torn left hamstring April 2, the Capitals will attempt to piece together the 19:11 in ice time he averaged playing on the top pair with John Carlson. That will begin with Carlson, a right-handed shot, shifting to the left side to play with Jensen, another righty. Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos, each left-handed like Kempny, also are likely to get shifts playing with Carlson on the right side.

The Capitals defensemen had a few games late in the regular season to adjust to playing with different partners, but there might be some rough patches ahead in the playoffs.

"I think it is a small challenge for them," Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. "It's something you do a little bit more than you think during the game. A lot of times your partner gets stuck on the ice and can't change, so you do get broken up a little bit."


4. Petr Mrazek

Mrazek was a big part of the Hurricanes' surge to qualify for the playoffs, going 11-2-0 with a 1.68 goals-against average, .944 save percentage and two shutouts in his final 13 games. He will have to be sharp against a deep Capitals attack that features seven players who scored at least 20 goals: Alex Ovechkin (51), Oshie (25), Jakub Vrana (24), Tom Wilson (22), Nicklas Backstrom (22), Brett Connolly (22) and Kuznetsov (21).

Sharing the net for most of this season with Curtis McElhinney, Mrazek went 23-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA, .914 save percentage and four shutouts in 40 games, representing his best season since he won 27 games with a 2.33 GAA, .921 save percentage and four shutouts in 2015-16 with the Detroit Red Wings. In 11 career playoff games (10 starts) with the Red Wings and the Philadelphia Flyers, Mrazek is 4-6 with a 1.98 GAA, .927 save percentage and three shutouts.


5. Handling the Hurricanes' pressure

Carolina uses its speed and relentless pressure to generate sustained shifts in the offensive zone. That leads to shots and scoring chances and also can tire out opponents from playing defense, leaving them less energy and time to create offensively.

The Hurricanes led the NHL with 34.4 shots on goal per game and were third-best in the League in allowing 28.6 shots on goal per game. They also were a League-best plus-750 in 5-on-5 shot attempts (4,272 for/3,522 against).

To combat this, the Capitals will look to move the puck out of the defensive zone quickly. Goalie Braden Holtby can help diffuse the Hurricanes forecheck by leaving his net to collect dump-ins and passing the puck to his defensemen to begin the breakout.


Hurricanes projected lineup

Nino Niederreiter -- Sebastian Aho -- Justin Williams

Micheal Ferland -- Jordan Staal -- Teuvo Teravainen

Andrei Svechnikov -- Jordan Martinook -- Brock McGinn

Greg McKegg -- Lucas Wallmark -- Warren Foegele

Jaccob Slavin -- Dougie Hamilton

Brett Pesce -- Justin Faulk

Haydn Fleury -- Trevor van Riemsdyk

Petr Mrazek

Curtis McElhinney

Scratched: Saku Maenalanen, Jake Bean

Injured: Calvin de Haan (upper body)


Capitals projected lineup

Alex Ovechkin -- Nicklas Backstrom -- Tom Wilson

Carl Hagelin -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- T.J. Oshie

Jakub Vrana -- Lars Eller -- Brett Connolly

Andre Burakovsky -- Nic Dowd -- Chandler Stephenson

John Carlson -- Nick Jensen

Dmitry Orlov -- Matt Niskanen

Brooks Orpik -- Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby

Pheonix Copley

Scratched: Jonas Siegenthaler, Travis Boyd, Dmitrij Jaskin, Ilya Samsonov

Injured: Michal Kempny (torn left hamstring)


Status report

De Haan skated on his own in Washington on Thursday, but Brind'Amour didn't sound optimistic about him being available to play in Game 2 on Saturday. "That I don't know, but we're very hopeful he'll see some action at some point," Brind'Amour said. … Slavin will play after missing practice Wednesday for personal reasons. … The Capitals recalled Samsonov from Hershey of the American Hockey League to serve as their third goalie for at least the first two games of the series.

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