The Washington Capitals sent out a starting lineup Thursday that had Nicklas Backstrom at center with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie on the wings.
The Carolina Hurricanes had Lucas Wallmark stepping in to the center-ice faceoff circle against Backstrom for the opening draw, with Jordan Martinook and Warren Foegele on the wings.
Normally, that would have been Jordan Staal taking the faceoff. It would have been Staal centering the Canes’ top checking line and matched up as much as possible on the road against one of the most dangerous lines in the league.
But Staal is out, again. Concussion symptoms continue to linger and his return, to practice or games, is unknown.
“That’s a huge piece missing, for sure,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Thursday before the game.
Asked who his best checking center was with Staal out, Brind’Amour quickly mentioned “Wally” -- that is, Wallmark.
“It’s a lot to ask,” Brind’Amour said.
Well, yes. Staal, 30, is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound forward with a Stanley Cup ring and more than 900 games of regular-season and playoff experience. Wallmark, 23, is listed at 6-0 and 178 pounds, having now played 55 NHL games.
“Everyone knows how good Jordan is and how important he is to our team,” Wallmark said Thursday. “Hopefully he’ll be back soon. Everyone has to pick it up a little bit more and show they want to play.”
The Canes’ centers Thursday in the 3-1 loss to the Caps were Sebastian Aho, Wallmark, Clark Bishop and Victor Rask. By the third period, Brind’Amour had Rask and winger Janne Kuokkanen on the bench, relying even more on his top three centermen.
It was another full night for Wallmark. The Swede had more than three minutes of penalty-kill time, almost two minutes of power-play time and was used on a team-high 21 faceoffs, winning 11.
Special teams play was decisive in the game. The Caps picked up a power-play goal from T.J. Oshie while the Canes were 0-for-4 on the power play. Chandler Stephenson had an even-strength goal for the Caps and defenseman John Carlson an empty-net score late as Canes goalie Petr Mrazek and the Caps’ Braden Holtby matched saves most of the night.
Aho had the goal for the Canes (15-16-5), eight points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference after Thursday’s games.
With Staal sidelined, Wallmark has averaged about 18 minutes of ice time per game. That’s more than he could have imagined at the start of training camp, when he was just trying to lock down a roster spot.
But Rask, one of Wallmark’s best friends on the team and a fellow Swede, cut two fingers in a kitchen accident before camp began. Come opening night, Wallmark was on the team.
“It’s my first (full) year in the league and I felt at the beginning it was a process and I was just trying to learn,” Wallmark said. “After that, I felt I was getting better and better and getting more confidence. Just trying to do all the small things right and get better each game.”
Martinook said Wallmark might be the most underrated player on the team, saying, “He’s so responsible-minded defensively.” Wallmark, who has quick hands and good instincts, has won more than 53 percent of his faceoffs. Despite a lack of size, he’s wiry tough along the walls. He’s usually in the right spots in hte defensive zone, earning Brind’Amour’s trust.
“Wally’s doing the job and has been doing a great job all year,” Brind’Amour said.
What’s missing? Goals, mainly. Puck luck.
Despite doing so many things well, Wallmark has scored two goals in 36 games -- one on the power play. He has 78 shots on net, so he’s getting looks. Like many of his teammates, he’s not finishing.
“Hit the posts, unbelievable saves, something,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m still creating the chances. Sooner or later, hopefully it’s going to come for me.”
Wallmark, a former fourth-round draft pick by Carolina, had 24 goals in 67 games for the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL during the 2016-17 season, when he made his NHL debut and was in eight games for the Canes. He had 17 goals and 38 assists in 45 games last season with the Checkers in being named the team’s MVP.
But his NHL totals remain: three goals, 12 assists in 55 games.
“Right now I’m trying to stay positive and stay with it and do what I’ve been doing to create the chances,” Wallmark said. “Sooner or later ...”
Carolina Hurricanes at New Jersey Devils
Saturday, 1 p.m., Prudential Center, Newark, NJ
TV: Fox Sports Carolinas