For the second straight season, the Caps are in the position of needing to win the final game of their three-game California journey in order to salvage something from the trip. They weren’t able to accomplish that task in Anaheim last season; they’ll try once again on Saturday afternoon in San Jose.
Back in the lineup from an absence of a dozen games because of an upper body injury, Kings winger Trevor Lewis made his presence felt immediately. He netted his 14
th goal of the season midway through the second period, snapping a 1-1 tie and supplying the difference maker in a 3-1 Los Angeles victory over the Capitals at Staples Center on Thursday night.
The Caps started the trip with a 4-0 loss to the Ducks in Anaheim on Tuesday.
“We knew it was a big game coming off the last loss and coming out of a four-day break,” says Kings coach John Stevens. “We also knew that [Tuesday] was the first game in Anaheim for Washington and it’s a tough trip all the way across the country.
“We knew they’d be a lot better tonight and they were. So, we just knew that we’d need to have a really good team game and we’d need some contribution from everybody.”
Thursday night's loss is the Caps' eighth straight in Los Angeles (0-6-2) and their seventh straight setback in The Golden State, dating back to March of 2016. The Caps are 0-6-1 in those last seven games in California, and they’ve been outscored by a combined total of 29-12 in the process. Even the Capitals’ last victory out here on the Left Coast produced only one goal; it was a 2-1 shootout triumph over the Ducks on March 7, 2016.
Less than a week ago, the Caps poured five pucks past Toronto netminder Frederik Andersen in less than 40 minutes, chasing the Leafs netminder to the bench for the first time this season. But Washington has managed just one goal in seven periods of hockey since, and its annual California drought has kicked in.
Los Angeles jumped out in front late in the first, cashing in on a Washington turnover. Kings center Jeff Carter picked off T.J. Oshie’s attempted breakout pass, enabling Los Angeles to stay in the zone. Alec Martinez put a left point shot on net, and Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer made the stop. Carter was right there for the rebound, and Grubauer again made the save, but Carter persevered and scored on the Kings’ third shot in as many seconds, staking them to a 1-0 lead at 15:25 of the first.
The Caps lost 17 of 23 draws in the first, were outshot 14-8 and out-attempted 28-17 in a penalty-free frame. They came to life late in the frame and nearly tied the game in the final minute of the first, but Evgeny Kuznetsov’s rush bid glanced off the goalpost.
Washington pulled even at 5:52 of the second on a goal similar in some ways to Carter’s in in other ways to the Lewis game-winner. Jakub Vrana picked off a Tanner Pearson pass attempt in Los Angeles ice, and the Caps went back to work on the attack. Vrana made a centering feed for Oshie, and Kings goalie Jonathan Quick stopped that shot, the puck popping straight up in the air as a result. Driving by the right post, Vrana deftly batted the puck into the cage, keeping his stick beneath the crossbar as he did so. Vrana’s second goal in his last three goals made it a 1-1 game.
"It happens pretty quick," says Vrana, in recounting his goal. "And when the puck is in the air like this, you just focus to hit it, and thankfully I did."
The Kings got their lead back less than four minutes later, getting what would prove to be the game-winner from Lewis midway through the contest.
Carter pulled the puck away from Caps winger Alex Chiasson near the Los Angeles line, and sent a backhand feed to Lewis at the Washington line. In a one-on-one situation with Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, Lewis fired a shot from the top of the left circle. Grubauer made a chest stop, but the rebound fell in front of him. Orpik tried to sweep it aside, but Lewis got there first and shot once again. Grubauer made the save with the right side of his upper torso, but the puck caromed into the air, and the third time was the charm. Lewis whacked it behind Grubauer to make it 2-1.
Kyle Clifford's empty-netter in the game's penultimate minute accounted for the 3-1 final.
The Kings made it difficult for Washington to gain entry into Los Angeles ice throughout the night, so when the Caps were able to earn a pair of power play chances consecutively in the middle of the third, it seemed like their best and perhaps last chance to generate the equalizer.
“I thought it was a pretty even game,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We need a little more finish. Need to get a dirty goal, get something on the power play. It’s not coming easy for us. We’re going to have to battle through it.”
Perhaps the Caps’ three best scoring chances in the game came in the first period. John Carlson had two whacks in front and in tight after a fine feed from Alex Ovechkin, but Quick stopped them both. Kuznetsov’s shot off the post in the final minute was the other; legitimate scoring chances were few and far between for Washington in the final 40 minutes of play.
“We played a little bit better tonight,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We’re still not able to generate enough dangerous chances. We had probably four, five really good looks and not a lot besides that. We’ll keep working at it.”
Washington dodged a potentially dangerous injury situation in the second period when winger Tom Wilson blocked a Jake Muzzin slapshot with his face. Wilson quickly darted off the ice in distress, holding one glove to his face, and he missed the last dozen minutes of the frame before returning in the third.