Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his first NHL goal to ensure the Capitals captured at least a point Tuesday night but it could be the one that they didn’t get in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Kings that haunts them down the stretch. Washington didn’t just lose the game, either, as top center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Jack Hillen both left the game with undisclosed injuries.
Five thoughts on the shootout loss to the Kings.
1. Two-goal leads. Of all the habits that have come to define the Capitals this season, their inability to hang on to two-goal leads could be particularly costly for their postseason hopes. When they relinquished their advantage to Los Angeles in the third period Tuesday night, it marked the second time in a little more than three weeks that the Capitals carried a two-goal lead into the third period of a game that, had they won, would put them into a playoff spot for the first time since Jan. 18. The first game was the collapse on March 2 that led to a 5-4 overtime loss to the Flyers.
Those missed opportunities and squandered extra points may mean a lot to the Capitals when the regular season ends. All you have to do is look at the Eastern Conference wild-card standings today to get an idea of how tight things are, with the Caps, Blue Jackets, Red Wings and Maple Leafs all tied with 80 points. As the one of those four teams without any tiebreakers, Washington could certainly use an extra point or two along the way.
The lead slipped away Tuesday night after the Capitals played a strong first two periods, creating a 3-1 advantage through hard work and the diligent play that helped them succeed during their recently completed road trip. But even in game 73, Washington hasn’t figured out how to consistently carry that to a victory.
“It’s extremely frustrating. We take our foot off for a second, today we shut our brains off for a second and good teams do that to you,” Karl Alzner said. “We’ve done such a good job over the last few games here of maintaining pressure, working hard, making smart plays, so it’s frustrating that we went back to old habits for a game.”
The Capitals have frittered away two-goal leads 13 times this year, six in the third period alone, and are 5-3-4 in the contests in which it occurs. That’s 10 points they’ve left on the table that would come in handy right about now.
2. Ovi ties another record. With his pair of power play goals against the Kings, Alex Ovechkin now has 48 goals, 22 on the power play. That ties the Capitals’ single-season record set by Peter Bondra in 2000-01. I tend to think Ovechkin will break that over the last nine games of the regular season.
Ovechkin has seven goals in 13 games in March and all have come on the power play. He tied a career-long drought of 13 games without an even-strength goal against the Kings, though.
Here’s both of those power play tallies.
3. Whither Backstrom. Walk around the Capitals’ dressing room and ask which player is the most important on the roster and the quick consensus is Nicklas Backstrom. While no one questions Ovechkin’s skill level or his ability to put the team on his back with his offensive production, Backstrom has long been the “straw who stirs the drink.”
Any time he goes down in a heap or, like Tuesday night, heads down the tunnel after a big hit and doesn’t return, it’s met with great concern because there’s no easy way to replace the team’s top center.
He averages the second highest ice time per game among forwards at 19:47, the second most time on the power play (3:40) and is Washington’s best playmaker. While Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov can fill in on the power play, neither one can keep the man-advantage flowing as well as Backstrom does. Take last night for example: With Backstrom, the Caps were 2-for-2 on the power play. Without him? 0-for-2.
Mikhail Grabovski, who has missed 21 of the past 22 games with a sprained left ankle, appears to be nearing a return and his presence would bolster the lineup regardless of Backstrom’s status. But if Backstrom is sidelined, getting Grabovski back in the fold will be an even more significant development.
There should be an update on Backstrom Thursday.
4. Chris Brown. When the Capitals sent Martin Erat to Phoenix they agreed to take Rostislav Klesla, which was the only way the Coyotes could fit the forward’s cap hit under their budget, but they wanted something of value as well. That component was 23-year-old forward Chris Brown, who General Manager George McPhee liked because of his size and skating ability.
Brown is still new to both the NHL and the Capitals – he’s played only four games for Washington since the trade and has a total of 15 games in the NHL under his belt – but he’s making a strong first impression.
Against the Kings, Brown made the smart play to pick off a pass by Dwight King in the Washington zone and then showed off his skating as he led a two-on-two rush the other way. His shot on goal created a rebound for Dustin Penner to score on in the second period. He also scored his first NHL goal on Saturday in San Jose when his shot banked off Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle.
Considering he’s playing center despite being a natural right wing, it’s not a bad start for Brown.
5. Down to the wire. The only game that will impact the playoff standings in the East Wednesday night is a matchup between the Rangers and Flyers, who sit second and third in the Metropolitan Division with 84 and 83 points, respectively. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the conference, the Capitals are mired in a four-team heat with Columbus, Detroit and Toronto for the wild-card spots as all four squads have 80 points. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings currently hold the first and second wild-card berths.
Barring a complete collapse by some of those teams, this playoff race will easily go down to the last week if not the last game of the season. Here is the remaining schedule of each of those teams, ranked seventh-10th in the Eastern Conference.
7. Columbus (37-29-6, 80 points, 32 ROW): vs. Pittsburgh, at Carolina, vs. Colorado, at Philadelphia, vs. Chicago, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Phoenix, at Dallas, at Tampa Bay, at Florida.
8. Detroit (33-25-14, 80 points, 28 ROW): vs. Montreal, at Toronto, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Boston, vs. Buffalo, at Montreal, at Buffalo, at Pittsburgh, vs. Carolina, at St. Louis.
9. Washington (34-27-12, 80 points, 25 ROW): vs. Boston, at Nashville, vs. Dallas, at New Jersey, at NY Islanders, at St. Louis, at Carolina, vs. Chicago, vs. Tampa Bay.
10. Toronto (36-30-8, 80 points, 27 ROW): at Philadelphia, vs. Detroit, vs. Calgary, vs. Boston, vs. Winnipeg, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at Ottawa.