When the 2013-14 schedule was released last summer, most longtime Caps fans seeing the team’s three-game California trip in late march probably figured that a three-point return from that journey would be a very positive result. Washington’s history in these parts has not been stellar in recent seasons.
By virtue of its 2-1 shootout loss to the Kings in Los Angeles on Thursday night, the Caps have ensured that they’ll be bringing at least three points back to the District with them on Sunday. But even though the Caps have to be happy with the single point they collected in a game in which they trailed heading into the third, the loss to L.A. still smarts a little. That’s because the Caps had some glorious chances to win it in overtime, and because all the teams they're chasing in the Eastern Conference playoff race picked up two points each earlier in the evening.
Washington’s white hot power play unit had an early opportunity to draw first blood when Kings forward Jeff Carter went off for hooking at 6:05 of the first period. The Caps managed a couple of shots, but no serious threats.
Los Angeles broke the seal on the scoresheet just past the 14-minute mark of the first. Kings forward Marian Gaborik raced into the Caps’ zone after a chip-in from the neutral zone. He passed to Anze Kopitar in front, and Kopitar found just enough room on the short side to slide the puck past Washington netminder Jaroslav Halak for a 1-0 Los Angeles lead at 14:09 of the first.
The Caps killed a Jason Chimera minor for interference late in the first. The Kings had the last nine shot attempts of the period, and led 17-10 in that department in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Washington had the first four shot attempts of the second, but Los Angeles seized some momentum when Caps center Nicklas Backstrom was nabbed for holding at 2:59 of the second. The Kings reeled off 14 straight shot attempts and seven straight shots on goal in a five-minute span in the first half of the middle period, a span of time that was sandwiched around the Backstrom minor.
After weathering that storm, the Caps finally started to generate some noise of their own late in the second. Washington defensemen Dmitry Orlov and ex-Kings winger Dustin Penner each had Grade A chances on the same shift just past the midpoint of the game, but Kings goalie Jonathan Quick had the answer for both bids.
“In the second,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, “we started making better decisions with the puck and because of that we got into [the Kings’] zone and started to do what they do. They grind it out and we grinded it out with them.
“I think sometimes when you play a team that you haven’t played and the guys you are playing won the Stanley Cup recently, they know that. They’re in a foreign building. I think sometimes you’re a little behind the plays and the reads and it takes some time to get into the pace of the game even though we played two nights ago, and I think the second half of the game the guys did a way better job.”
A Tanner Pearson holding call early in the third period gave the Caps just their second man-advantage opportunity of the game, but Penner’s wrist shot from down low on the right side was the only shot the Caps could get on goal during that two-minute stretch.
The Caps were patient, and that patience finally paid off in the 13th minute of the third. Backstrom passed from the goal line on the right side of the Los Angeles net to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the very high slot. Kuznetsov then curled toward the wall and carried down low with the puck on his backhand. He skated around the back of the net, switching to his forehand as he did, and he fed Joel Ward in front. The big winger squeezed off a shot that was blocked by Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. But the puck came right back to Ward and he didn’t miss on the second opportunity.
“I was just trying to get some separation from the defenseman in front,” says Ward. “I knew Kuzy had the puck down low. He threw one out front. At first I couldn’t see it. I tried to take a whack at it then it hit my skate. I just kind of scooped it in.”
Both teams seemed content to take the point at that stage of the contest; each team managed only a single shot on goal the rest of the way.
In the first minute of the extra session, the Caps earned a golden chance to come away with a second point. Marcus Johansson drew a hooking call on veteran Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr, giving the Capitals their third power play chance of the game, and a 4-on-3 opportunity at that.
Washington called its timeout to talk things over, and the Caps ended up with a couple of very strong looks and chances. They pumped five shots on net, and got three on Quick. But Washington’s best bid might have come when Alex Ovechkin blazed a shot wide of the mark – one of six missed shots by the Caps captain on the night – with just seven seconds left on the power play.
Ovechkin has not scored an even-strength goal since Feb. 27 when he netted the game-winner in a 5-4 Washington win over the Panthers in Florida. That was the Caps’ first game after the Olympic break.
“Yes, especially when I have an opportunity to shoot the puck,” says Ovechkin, when asked about his faulty radar in Thursday’s game. “I try to see where the goalie is. I’m pretty sure I will find a way, but I have to score 5 on 5.”
The Caps had one more excellent chance with about 90 seconds left when Kuznetsov fed Orlov in the slot, but the latter’s redirection bid was pushed just wide of the left post.
Washington had to brave a late Los Angeles fury in the final seconds of overtime just to have a chance to win it in the shootout. But it was the Kings who came away with the extra point when the skills competition was concluded.
“Our penalty killing did an unbelievable job throughout the whole game,” says Gaborik, “especially in overtime to play that 4-on-3. It was huge. We found a way to win and we worked very hard and after the second period we talked about that we just have to hold off and play our game, unfortunately they tied it up, but we stayed with it and we got a win.”
“I thought the first period we came out a little slow,” says Oates. “Some guys, it’s their first time in this building and they’re a good team and a good team in this building, and we got through the first period and the second half we played a good hockey game. That’s who [the Kings] are, the goalie played great, the goalie maybe stole it for them, but they play a hard-nose physical game, and they did, and I’m proud of the guys the way they stood up to it. You know the second half of the game; I thought we kind of took it to them. We had a lot of good chances. I would say we carried the pace a little bit.”
Four Score – Ward scored for the fourth time in as many games, netting his 22nd goal of the season. Five times previously in his NHL career – including twice earlier this season – Ward scored at least one goal in each of three straight games. But his current four-game goal scoring streak represents the longest run of his 424-game NHL career.
Gang Green – Ward’s goal came while he happened to be on the ice with Backstrom and Kuznetsov. But he and/or one or more of his usual “Gang Green” linemates has now been on the ice for 12 of Washington’s last 15 five-on-five goals over the team’s last 11 games.
Tough Town – Los Angeles has been a difficult town for the Caps over the last decade or so. Washington’s last win in L.A. came on Dec. 14, 2005 when Jamie Heward netted a pair of power-play goals – including the game-winner with 63 seconds remaining – to propel the Caps and goaltender Olie Kolzig to a 3-2 win over the Kings.
Washington is now 1-4-1 in its last six visits to Los Angeles and it has owned a lead for a combined total of 33:43 of the 365 minutes of hockey it has played here on those visits.
Leader Board – Backstrom’s assist is his 56th of the season, the third highest single-season total he has amassed in his seven-year career. He and Ovechkin each have 69 points and are among six players tied for sixth place in the league’s scoring race.
Skills Drought – Washington has now lost five straight shootouts and six of its last seven. The Capitals are 8-8 on the season in shootouts after winning each of their first four shootout games this season and five of their first six.
500 Club – Kings coach Darryl Sutter earned the 500th regular season victory of his NHL coaching career in Thursday’s game. He now has a 500-374-153 lifetime record in the league and is 91-54-22 as the Kings’ bench boss.
Sutter was asked after the game what the milestone meant to him.
“A lot,” Sutter responded. “I’ve been around a long time. Kind of odd in the shootout though.”
Quick Study – The victory was the 171st of Quick’s NHL and Kings career, tying him with Rogatien Vachon for the Los Angeles franchise record for most wins by a goaltender.
Quick earned his 171st win in his 326th game with the Kings; Vachon played 389 games in a Los Angeles sweater.
With Thursday’s shootout win over Washington, Quick is now 35-20 in the skills competition during his NHL career and 5-2 this season.
“To be honest,” says Quick, “I did not know I was that close until a couple games ago and somebody brought it up. It’s special and obviously wins are a team effort, so I think that makes it a little more special and enjoyable because it is 20 guys contributing toward the win. Obviously if it was not for the shootout, I would be another season behind, he did not have the luxury of having the shootout, so in my mind, I’m still chasing [Vachon].”
By The Numbers – Green led the Caps with 24:12 in ice time … Ovechkin led the way with four hits … Troy Brouwer led Washington with four shots on goal … John Carlson paced the Capitals with six blocked shots in Thursday’s game … Los Angeles was credited with 50 hits to just 22 for the Capitals in the contest … Each of the 18 Los Angeles skaters was credited with at least one hit in the game with Regehr leading the way with eight … Kings defenseman Drew Doughty led all skaters on both sides with 27:09 in ice time … Kopitar won 14 of 23 draws (61%) in the game.