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Caps Get Hollow Point

March 26, 2014

Coming home from a triumphant West Coast road trip in which they garnered five of a possible six points (2-0-1), the Washington Capitals were aiming to keep their foot on the gas and to snowball some of that California momentum into a two-game homestand against elite opponents. Down to 10 games on the schedule and still chasing the pack in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, the Capitals don’t have much margin for misstep.


But misstep they did, squandering another two-goal lead in a twisted tilt that culminated in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings.


What started out to be a good night for Washington might end in a nightmare scenario that could have negative reverberations for the Caps. The setback was painful enough, but the greater loss might end up being that of center Nicklas Backstrom.


Backstrom left the game with what the Caps are calling an upper body injury early in the second period, and he did not return to action. As the final 40 minutes of the game illustrated, the Caps can ill afford to be without their best forward.


The Caps jumped out to a quick lead on Tuesday. When Kings forward Tanner Pearson tripped Caps forward Marcus Johansson just 95 seconds after the opening puck drop, it put Washington’s vaunted power play on the ice. The Caps’ extra-man unit came through, scoring in somewhat fluky fashion.


Caps captain Alex Ovechkin had control of the puck along the left half wall near his power play “office.” He spotted Backstrom at the far post and tried to laser a pass in that direction. Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick got his stick on the bid, but the puck popped up into the air and landed in the net behind him for a 1-0 Washington lead at 2:24 of the first period.


The Capitals’ newly cobbled fourth line of Dustin Penner, Chris Brown and Tom Wilson has been effective of late, taking on more minutes and more responsibility and making positive contributions to the Caps’ cause. That trend continued on Tuesday. Penner drew a tripping call on former Los Angeles teammate Drew Doughty at 7:04 of the first, giving the Caps their second man-advantage opportunity of the frame.


Once again, the Caps cashed in. Once again, it was Ovechkin from his office. This time it was a more conventional strike. Troy Brouwer made a good feed from the diamond to put it on a tee for Ovechkin, whose one-timer beat Quick on the short side to double the Capitals’ lead to 2-0.


Washington managed to get through the first frame with that two-goal lead intact, killing off a Mike Green holding call late in the period to do so. Although the Kings were down a pair after the game’s first 20 minutes, they led the Caps 6-5 in even-strength shots on goal and owned a 15-14 edge in shot attempts.


As expected, Los Angeles came out with a vengeance in the second, and the Kings drew a tripping call on Caps forward Joel Ward before the period was a minute old. Washington’s streak of 22 straight successful penalty killing missions screeched to a halt when Mike Richards was able to corral the rebound of an Alec Martinez point shot and tuck it behind Caps goaltender Jaroslav Halak, even with Washington defenseman Jack Hillen draped around him. The goal came with just three seconds remaining on the Ward minor, halving Washington’s lead to 2-1.


About two minutes after the Richards goal, Backstrom left the ice and did not return. Doughty gave the Caps’ No. 1 pivot a rough ride right in front of the Washington bench, sending him airborne and to an eventual rugged landing on his left side.


Within a few minutes of Backstrom’s departure, the Caps briefly lost the services of two other forwards. Brown blocked a shot and slowly hobbled off, and Brouwer got the worst of a fracas in front of the Los Angeles net with Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, a meeting that resulted in both men being given a minor penalty. Brouwer got up slowly in the aftermath of the event, and he skated off the ice and went down the tunnel. Wilson had to serve his minor for him, leaving Washington with just eight available forwards at that juncture of the contest.


Up a goal and down a few bodies against the best puck possession team in the league, the Caps were clearly and merely clinging to that one-goal cushion for most of the second period. Los Angeles had 15 of the first 16 shot attempts in the period and the Kings held a 21-4 advantage in second-period shot attempts as the clock clicked past the 17-minute mark.


The Caps didn’t have much going on at that point, but the fourth line came through again.


Back from being tended to, Chris Brown blocked another shot, then skated the puck through netural ice, criss-crossing with Penner just before they reached the Los Angeles line. Brown fired a shot on net, and Quick made the stop. But Brown was able to get around his man, get to the rebound and push it to Penner. Penner parked it into the empty net for his first goal in a Capitals sweater – and Brown’s first career NHL assist – restoring Washington’s two-goal advantage at 3-1 with 2:53 remaining in the middle period.


Brouwer returned for the third period, and the Caps still had that two-goal lead going into the third. But Washington has been giving away two-goal leads as if they were bobblehead dolls in 2013-14, and that tendency flared up again on Tuesday.


The Kings had played on the road a night earlier, facing the Flyers in Philadelphia. But Washington was never able to make the Kings feel the effects of the schedule. It was the Caps who spent most of the night chasing the Kings and the puck. And for most of the game, Washington was forced to do so without one of its own better possession players and face-off artists in Backstrom.


“We weren’t as sharp as we like to be in the first,” admits Kings coach Darryl Sutter. “I think when Backstrom went out, that made obviously a difference in terms of how [the Capitals] use the bench.”


For the second straight period, Los Angeles was able to make something positive happen in the first minute of the frame in the early seconds of the third. Dwight King – the brother of ex-Caps winger D.J. King – scored his second goal in as many nights. King put back the rebound of a Dustin Brown shot off the rush to make it a 3-2 game only 45 seconds into the third period.


Los Angeles continued to possess the puck, and the Caps continued to chase it. When the Kings tied the contest at 3-3 on a goal-scorer’s goal from veteran sniper Marian Gaborik at 8:41 of the third, they also owned a 12-4 lead in third period shot attempts.


Only 4:14 after Gaborik’s goal, the Kings took the lead for the first time in the game. Washington center Marcus Johansson won a draw in the Washington zone, but King got a stick on Patrick Wey’s clearing pass, redirecting it to Los Angeles pivot Jarret Stoll. Stoll put it toward the slot, and Dustin Brown got there just before Wey, snapping a shot through Halak to put the Kings on top, 4-3 with 7:05 remaining.


With time winding down in the third and Halak pulled for an extra attacker, Caps defenseman John Carlson incurred a hooking minor for impeding Richards’ bid for what would have been a game-ending, empty-net insurance goal. Instead of leading 5-3 with less than a minute remaining, the Kings went on the power play.


Washington put Halak back in the net for the ensuing defensive zone draw. Eric Fehr won the face-off, and Dmitry Orlov skated the puck past the red line. Orlov lofted a shot from neutral ice, and Quick shouldered it to the left wing corner. The Kings’ blueline duo attempted a D-to-D pass behind the Los Angeles net, but a hustling Fehr made a good read and intervened. He got there first, centering the puck to the front where Ovechkin lunged into a one-timer. Quick made the save, but the puck squirted behind him.


Caps rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov was Evgeny-on-the-spot, sliding the puck into the empty cage for the first goal of his NHL career, evening the game at 4-4 with just 41.5 seconds remaining in regulation.


“It was a big goal that actually got us a point,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “Shorthanded. It was a good play. We won a draw, Orly makes a nice run up the ice, which gives us a chance to get the goalie out. We dumped it in, and then I’m sure they relaxed just enough; it’s a weird situation. Sometimes those goals go in.


“It was a big goal for him and us; it gets us a point.”


There was still the matter of the Carlson minor, of which more than 1:40 remained after the Caps tied it up. Still a man to the good, the Kings pressed hard for the decisive goal for the waning seconds of regulation and the first minute of overtime, firing nine straight shot attempts in the 4:06 of action immediately following Kuznetsov’s tying tally.


Washington owned the last three and a half minutes of the extra session, and the Caps had some good looks at the Los Angeles net. Their best chance to snare a second point blew away like yesterday’s paper when Orlov’s shot rang off the post.


There was a chilling moment in overtime when Ovechkin and Hillen collided violently at center ice with Hillen getting the worst of it. Both players remained on the ice for some time after the collision. Ovechkin returned to the game; Hillen did not.


The Kings won the skills event, forcing the Caps to settle for a somewhat hollow point, and to once again rue wistfully about the one that got away.


“There are no excuses,” says Johansson. “We have to find a way to win when we are up two goals. I think we have to be more careful with the puck in certain places, take plays when they’re there and when [the play is not there], try to make the right play.”


Washington is off on Wednesday and it reconvenes for practice on Thursday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. In a perfect world, Backstrom will join his teammates on the ice then.


“Obviously you miss Backy,” says Oates, “but every team has guys that go out. You’ve got 19 other guys to do the job. We’ve got plenty of other guys that can do the job.”


Powering Up – Ovechkin’s pair of first-period power-play goals pushed his total to 22 extra-man tallies on the season. That ties the single-season franchise mark for power-play goals set by Peter Bondra in 2000-01 and matched by Ovechkin himself in 2007-08.


Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals (48), power-play goals and shots on net (358).


You Again – Five nights earlier in Los Angeles, Kuznetsov made a sublime play to set up Joel Ward for the team’s lone goal of the night, a third-period tally that enabled the Caps to come away with a point in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Kings.


On Tuesday, Kuznetsov scored his first NHL goal to enable the Caps to again snare a crucial standings point. The 21-year-old winger now has a goal and six points in his first eight NHL games.


Short Stuff* – Kuznetsov is the first Capital in nearly three decades to score his first NHL goal while Washington was shorthanded.


Back on April 7, 1985, Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher notched his first NHL goal while the Capitals were down a man.


Six Pack – The Capitals have gone six straight games without suffering a regulation loss (4-0-2) for the first time this season. They had a pair of 4-0-1 runs earlier in the season, one from Nov. 1-9 and the other from Dec. 7-15.


A Pair To Beat A Full House – Tuesday’s game marks the second time this season that the Capitals have scored a game-tying shorthanded goal in the final minute of regulation, enabling the team to pull a point or two out of the fire in the process.


On Nov. 30 in a game against the Islanders in New York, Backstrom scored a shorthanded goal at 19:11 of the third to even the game at 2-2. Ovechkin won that one for the Caps in overtime.


Back-To-Back* – Kuznetsov’s first NHL goal came in the game immediately following Chris Brown’s first goal in the league. Brown’s initial NHL tally evened Saturday’s game against the Sharks in the third period, a game in which the Caps eventually prevailed 3-2 by way of a postgame skills competition.


This is the first time in more than a decade that a pair of freshmen Capitals have scored their first NHL goals in consecutive contests since John Gruden (Oct. 9, 2003) and Boyd Gordon (Oct. 11, 2003) did so early in the 2003-04 campaign.


Lucky Seven* – Kuznetsov became the seventh different member of the Caps to score his first NHL goal this season, following in the skate-steps of Connor Carrick, Wilson, Michael Latta, Nate Schmidt, Julien Brouillette and Brown.


The Caps are 6-0-1 in the seven games in which those players scored their first goals in the league.


This season marks the first time in more than 20 seasons that the Capitals have had as many as seven players notch their first goals in the league. Back in 1989-90, the Caps also had seven players score for the first time in the circuit.


Robin Bawa, Brian Tutt, Chris Felix, Nick Kypreos, Rob Murray, Kent Paynter and Tim Bergland did the honors for the Caps in ’89-90. Those seven players went on to combine for a grand total of 76 career NHL goals. For Tutt, Felix and Paynter, those first NHL goals in ’89-90 also turned out to be only NHL goals.


Helping Hands – Backstrom has six assists in his last six games and 57 on the season, third most in the NHL. He has collected an assist on 15 of Ovechkin’s 22 power-play goals this season.


Seven Down – Tuesday’s loss to Los Angeles was Washington’s seventh in succession at the hands of the Kings. The Caps are 0-5-2 in their last seven meetings with the Kings, and Washington is on the short end of a 26-15 scoring disparity in those games.


The Caps last bested Los Angeles in a 4-3 overtime triumph on Feb. 8, 2007 at Verizon Center.


By The Numbers – Green led the Caps with 24:46 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with seven shots on net and nine shot attempts … Green fired six shots, getting all of them on net … Wilson logged a single-game career best of 12:47, leading the Caps with nine hits in the process … Karl Alzner led Washington with seven blocked shots … Doughty led all skaters on both sides with 29:38 in ice time … Dustin Brown led the Kings with seven shots on net and six hits.


* Thanks to Elias Sports Bureau for supplying some of the statistical information contained herein.