- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

ARLINGTON, Va.  Few NHL blueliners scored more goals than Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson this season. Just seven, in fact, had more than Carlson’s 15, but two of them play for the Capitals’ first-round opponents in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets each finished the year with 16 goals and combined to be the highest-scoring defensive pairing in hockey. They’re also known as a shutdown pair in the defensive zone, and keeping them away from the puck might be one of the most important keys to a Washington victory in the first round.

Jones was the Blue Jackets’ second-highest point-getter with 57 (16 goals, 41 assists). Werenski has 21 assists to go with his 16 goals. And together, they have led Columbus to a top-10 scoring defense (2.76 goals allowed per game).

Carlson’s own career year should not be overshadowed. He led all NHL defensemen with 68 points and set career highs in goals (15), assists (53), shots (237) and ice time (24:47 per game). But even though Jones and Werenski, at 23 and 20 years old, are quite younger than the 28-year-old Capital, Capitals coach Barry Trotz sees some resemblances among the players.

“All those types of defensemen have a knack for finding areas where they can complement the attack and all three of those guys do it. And all three of them play big minutes, so they’re very similar in a lot of ways,” Trotz said.

Trotz knows Jones from the season they overlapped with the Nashville Predators. Jones’s first year in the NHL was Trotz’s last year coaching there.

“Jonesie’s a dynamic player. He’s grown into one of the bright stars in the league,” Trotz said.

Werenski and Jones each found the net against Washington this year. Jones tallied three points in the first period the last time the teams met, Feb. 26 in Columbus, with two assists and a power-play goal to power a 5-1 Blue Jackets win.

The Capitals’ own blueliners took notice of the pairing during the regular season.

“They’re good skaters. Most of the times against us, probably, I saw them both on the rush and (they) help their team, they can do it,” Dmitry Orlov said. “We just need to come back, all five guys always against them, and work them.”

“Obviously we look at everyone, but they’re a big part of the team and we’re going to need to do our best to slow them down,” Carlson said. “I think, if anything, we worry about having an effect on them versus them having an effect on us.”

Perhaps the Capitals will give the Jackets a taste of their own medicine. In their four regular season meetings, Carlson recorded two goals and three assists, totaling more points than any other Capital had against Columbus.

Either way, countering Werenski and Jones is part of Trotz’s to-do list.

“Anybody who is very offensive from the back end like John (Carlson) is, and (like) the defensemen that they have, you just got to make sure that you make them accountable where they are on the ice,” Trotz said. “It’s always a lot of shoulder checks. They’re going to try to be involved in the offense, which John does, so you just got to have good awareness and surrounding awareness of where they are on the ice.”

The Russian connections

Some Capitals and Blue Jackets players are tied by friendships that date back to their time in Mother Russia.

Orlov and Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are close friends from the same town of Novokuznetsk, Russia, and their time as teammates on the KHL club Metallurg Novokuznetsk.

And Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov knows Columbus forward and leading scorer Artemi Panarin from similar circumstances. Kuznetsov said he has known Panarin “since probably five years old” in the Siberian town of Chelyabinsk; they were teammates on the gold medal-winning Russian U-20 team at the 2011 World Junior Championships and Russia’s 2016 World Cup of Hockey squad.

Orlov and Kuznetsov have different approaches about talking to their friends during the first-round series. Orlov said playing against your friends is “part of life,” but quickly added he won’t talk to Bobrovsky the next two weeks.

“Honestly I don’t see anything bad to talk to each other, but I don’t know how it’s gonna be,” Orlov said. “Maybe they’re gonna be too focused … we’ll joke maybe after.”

Kuznetsov, though, was more open to it, though he won’t actively seek Panarin out.

“If I will see him, for sure I will talk to him. But we’re not that close where I call him on FaceTime before sleep,” Kuznetsov said. “We’re not that close. But if I will see him somewhere, I will say hi, of course. Hockey is hockey but we have to be personal.”

Grubauer not thinking past Thursday

When Trotz confirmed Tuesday that Philipp Grubauer would start Game 1, he made it clear nothing was determined beyond that.

Is Grubauer the starter for the foreseeable future? “Game 1.”

Then will you rotate Grubauer and Braden Holtby? “Game 1. We’re gonna go game by game.”

Committing to Grubauer for longer than one game might have been a bigger vote of confidence by Trotz, but Grubauer said Wednesday it doesn’t bother him.

“No. I don’t blame him. It’s Game 1, it’s only one game and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think the coaching staff, they don’t look any further than Game 1 and that’s the mental approach for everybody. That’s the goal, win Game 1.”

Grubauer doesn’t feel extra pressure to have a good game in net because he and Holtby have alternated for several weeks now.

“Like a bunch of teams, they use two goalies too. I’m not saying that’s going to be the case, but obviously we want to win Game 1,” Grubauer said. “And then Game 2, then Game 3 and 4.”

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