The Capitals coughed up a two-goal lead but ultimately prevailed against the similarly desperate Canucks for a 4-3 win Friday night in which rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded three assists for his first three NHL points.
Five thoughts on the win over Vancouver.
1. Kuznetsov. It’s difficult to gauge a player after only three games and have a true sense of what they will bring at the NHL level. But that said, the Capitals have to like what they’ve seen out of Kuznetsov this week as his confidence appears to increase every game.
After a tentative debut on Monday, he showed some spunk on Tuesday in Pittsburgh and had perhaps the best scoring chance in the game when he forced Marc-Andre Fleury to make an acrobatic kick save. But on Friday, he looked more like a smart playmaker and less a newcomer to the NHL trying to find his way. He made the simple, smart plays (the pass to the point on the power play); the stunning savvy set-up (the slap pass to Wilson); and a hard-working gritty effort that showed a translation to the North American game (on Mike Green’s game winning goal).
“He’s still got that sort of young mentality where you’re not afraid to make a play and do these things that you’re capable of. But there is inexperience,” Green said. “It is, what, his second, third game? I think he’s come a long way since even his first two. He’s going to be a great player and he’s already proving it.”
In general it’s wise to view Kuznetsov as a work in progress. The raw skill, talent and instincts are clearly there but he, like any young player, needs to continue to grow and find his way in the NHL. The adjustment process will last much longer than three games and there will be bumps in the road, but this week is encouraging in regard to what he’s capable of.
“He is such a creative player, a lot of fun to play with,” Tom Wilson said. “The first couple of games he wasn’t sure, and he’s really finding his groove. Hopefully we can have some good chemistry for years to come.”
Speaking of that, it’s hard not to wonder what a line with Kuznetsov and Wilson could look like a season or two down the road once they’ve both had more time in the NHL and working with each other. In the meantime, how long will he continue to get 10 to 14 minutes of ice time? With the Capitals making a do-or-die push for the playoffs could Kuznetsov wind up in the top six sooner rather than later?
2. The dreaded two-goal lead. If you were surprised when Vancouver came back to tie the game in the third period, you haven’t been paying attention. The Capitals squandered a two-goal lead for the 12th time this season, the fifth time in the third period, and on Friday as the defense broke down repeatedly in front of Jaroslav Halak.
On Vancouver’s second goal, the Capitals forgot to pick up Shawn Matthias – all four players in red jerseys in their own zone are occupying the left side of the ice while he skates in alone to the right. (Granted, Brooks Laich was unable to get back on the play and clearly limited by his lingering groin injury. See the next note for more on that.)
Then when the puck trickled out toward the blueline and Ward lost a battle to Dan Hamhuis, allowing the Canucks to keep the play alive. Vancouver worked the puck over to Nicklas Jensen, who had time and space with the Capitals defenders scrambling to get back into position.
3. Figuring out a way to get it done. Oates wasn’t over the moon about the Capitals’ overall play Friday night, nor should he have been. They still had their share of ugly defensive breakdowns, struggled to clear the puck out of the defensive zone on occasion and surrendered battles along the walls in their end.
If the Capitals are going to find a way into the playoffs they’re going to need wins like Friday – games in which things don’t go perfectly but the team comes away with two points. Ugly or not, they’ll take it. But Oates knew heading into the third period that the Capitals needed to maintain their focus.
“We talked before the [third] period. I felt the game, all night long, we had a 3-1 lead but we didn’t deserve it,” Oates said. “Yeah, we got a power play goal, which is big. And we got a third goal, which is a nice one, but the first 10 minutes of the second we gave it away seven times. We left [Halak] hanging and I said it going out, ‘Ket’s not kid ourselves that was not a good period.’”
4. Laich limited. While Laich continues to play despite sitting out most practices, the effects of his lingering groin injury are increasingly visible when he is on the ice in a game. Friday night it was easy to see Laich was not at full strength or full speed, no more so than on the play that led to Vancouver’s second goal when he was clearly struggling to get back into the defensive zone.
“He was laboring coming back and I talked to him,” Oates said. “I asked him to give us everything he had and he did and I really appreciate what he did for us, but I didn’t want to play him after that.”
But Laich went on to take two more shifts according to the official game stats, including one on a late penalty kill after insisting to Oates he could handle the shorthanded time.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I can kill’. And I said ‘Great,’” Oates said. “Because penalty killing’s not really skating, it’s position and your mind and it was a huge kill for us obviously.”
5. FedEx delivery? Before facing the Canucks, Nicklas Backstrom received some long-awaited news that the International Olympic Committee Disciplinary Commission ruled he would receive the silver medal he earned as a part of the Swedish hockey team in Sochi.
“Hopefully they’ll FedEx it to me,” Backstrom said after the game. “I’m happy about the decision absolutely. Who wouldn’t be happy to get a silver medal?”
It offers closure for Backstrom, who was held out of the gold-medal game in Sochi because he tested positive for elevated levels of pseudoephedrine because of an allergy medication he’s been taking for seven years. Backstrom had been tested on Feb. 19 but then didn’t receive the test results until Feb. 23, hours before the contest, leaving him no time to appeal the result or request a secondary test.
“I’m disappointed that I couldn’t play the final game there against Canada but that being said, I’m happy that the IOC acknowledged everything I said from the beginning,” Backstrom said. “I’m just happy that it’s over. It’s been on my mind a little bit. I’m happy it’s over and I’m glad I got the silver medal. With that being said, I’m looking forward to playing for the Caps now and that we get ourselves into the playoffs, that’s all I’m focused on right now.”