Last season, Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan made one of those sneaky-good moves when he acquired defenseman Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third-round pick. At the time, it seemed pretty random. But Kempny turned out to be the missing puzzle piece for the Capitals, becoming the perfect foil for No. 1 defenseman John Carlson and helping Washington win its first Stanley Cup.
This year, Kempny kept up his strong play with the Capitals and things were going swimmingly until a late March game against Tampa Bay, when he tore his hamstring and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
“It’s a tough hole to fill,” said goaltender Braden Holtby. “We all know how much he changed our team when we got him last year. But we have great depth and even our young guys have experience now. They’ve stepped in and are doing well.”
Now, the Capitals are still a top outfit in the NHL, but what does this mean for their chances of a repeat? One of the problems with Kempny’s injury is that it throws off Washington’s balance, since he was the lefty on a pairing with the right-handed Carlson. In the playoffs, that has meant that Carlson has played on his off-side with this year’s deadline acquisition, erstwhile Detroit Red Wings blueliner Nick Jensen. The newest Capital had played with Carlson a bit in the regular season, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on. It helps, of course, that Carlson had a season worthy of Norris Trophy consideration.
“It’s great playing with him,” Jensen said. “He’s really smart, really skilled, works hard. He’s got all the qualities of a great defenseman, which he is.”
The bigger challenge for Jensen was getting acclimated in Washington on the fly. He arrived from Detroit on Feb. 22 and less than a month later, Kempny went down. Luckily, the plan was to go slow anyways.
“I was new to the whole process, didn’t really know what to expect,” Jensen said. “But I knew it wouldn’t happen right away so I took a slower approach. The coaches did the same thing and that was really beneficial to my game. It’s hard to fill a slot like that because (Kempny) was playing so well.”
So far, Washington has been OK, winning its first two games in the opening round against the talented Carolina Hurricanes. Yes, the Canes have dominated possession – but they’ve done that all season to all opponents. Carlson and Jensen had their hands full with top Carolina forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen in Game 2, but managed to keep the damage to a minimum as Washington won in overtime.
Of course, Carlson and Jensen aren’t the only ones playing back there for the Capitals. The second pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov have played solid minutes so far and they’ve had a pretty good chemistry for quite awhile now. Behind them, it gets dicey with Brooks Orpik and the young Christian Djoos, the latter of whom has averaged less than seven minutes per game through two playoff contests this season.
The good news? That’s pretty much exactly what Washington rolled with last season and that worked out. And it’s not just Carlson with the talent.
“They’re great puckmovers and that’s huge with our forward group,” Jensen said. “Being able to get the puck in their hands – you know what happens when we do that. Our forwards are so skilled and they know how to put the puck in the back of the net, so if we can get it in their hands as much as possible, it benefits us. Our ‘D’ is really good at being poised under pressure in the ‘D’ zone and making those outlets passes to our forwards.”
The Capitals will have to keep a very game Carolina squad at bay in order to make another run, but with Tampa Bay going down in flames to Columbus and Pittsburgh getting nailed by the Islanders, all of a sudden another Eastern Conference triumph for the Capitals looks more promising.
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