At the outset of the third period Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Kings, the Washington Capitals were 20 minutes away from a win that could have propelled them into a playoff spot for the first time in more than two months.
But for the second time in three weeks, they squandered that opportunity by frittering away a two-goal lead in the third period. The Capitals managed to snatch a point thanks to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s shorthanded game-tying goal — his first career NHL tally – in the final minute of regulation, but the 5-4 shootout loss dealt a blow to their pursuit of a seventh consecutive playoff berth.
Adding to the defeat is the uncertain health of top center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Jack Hillen. Backstrom left the game with an undisclosed upper-body injury in the second period and did not return. Hillen got the worst of a collision with Alex Ovechkin midway through overtime.
One point might not seem like much over the course of a season. but for the Capitals it could be the difference between reaching the postseason and planning early vacations.
With the overtime loss, the Capitals have tied Columbus, Detroit and Toronto in points with 80. But because they don’t own any tiebreakers, they remain outside the playoff picture. The Blue Jackets (37-29-6 with 32 regulation and overtime wins) currently hold the first wild-card spot in the East, while the Red Wings (33-25-14 with 28 ROW) hold the second and both have a game in hand on Washington.
“We had control of that game,” Karl Alzner said. “We had two points in our hands and the fact that we don’t have it now is frustrating. I hope it doesn’t come down to that.”
The disappointment followed what had been a strong first two periods for the Capitals, who appeared to have brought the successful play from their California trip back home. Washington jumped on a tired Kings squad, which defeated the Flyers, 3-2, in Philadelphia the night before, from the opening faceoff using hustle to draw penalties that led to a quick lead.
Jay Beagle drew a tripping penalty on Tanner Pearson just 95 seconds into the contest and while it might not have counted as an official assist, it might as well have. On the ensuing power play, Ovechkin snapped a shot from his usual spot in the left circle that deflected off Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr and past Jonathan Quick (23 saves) for a 1-0 lead.
When Joel Ward was tripped a few minutes later, Ovechkin spun the power play into gold once more. His wrister beat Quick to put the Capitals ahead 2-0 at 7:04 in the first and marked Oveckin’s league leading 48th goal — the past seven of which have all come on the man advantage.
Not long after Mike Richards scored on a power play early in the second period, Kings defenseman Drew Doughty delivered a significant blow, checking Backstrom along the boards. The hit upended the center and sent his head into the dasher before he landed hard on his left shoulder when he crashed to the ice. Backstrom went to the bench seconds later and didn’t come back.
Coach Adam Oates said Backstrom was not undergoing concussion protocol testing and reiterated that the 26-year-old had suffered an upper-body injury.
“You miss Backy but every team has guys that go out,” Oates said. “You’ve got 19 other guys that got to do the job, we have plenty of guys that can do the job.”
Backstrom’s absence sent the lines into chaos, but as the Kings pushed Washington appeared to handle the situation. Dustin Penner recorded his first goal as a Capital on a rebound late in the second to give the Capitals a 3-1 lead entering the third period.
Los Angeles came out hard, cutting the margin to one once more when Dwight King slipped behind the defense and put a rebound between Jaroslav Halak’s legs. Halak finished with 32 saves.
Then Marian Gaborik rifled a shot over Halak’s shoulder and into the upper right-hand corner to tie the contest at 8:41 of the third, marking the 13th time this season the Capitals have choked away a two-goal lead and the sixth time in the third period. A giveaway by Patrick Wey on a clearing attempt resulted in a goal for Kings’ captain Dustin Brown that gave the visitors their first advantage of the game at 4-3.
“We got a little content with the lead, maybe that’s indicative of a young team,” said Penner, a two-time Stanley Cup champion. “When you have a 3-1 lead going into the third you shouldn’t have to score a shorthanded goal to tie it up.”
But that’s what the Capitals needed, Kuznetsov finding a loose puck behind Quick and swatting it into the yawning cage with 41.5 seconds remaining. The goal ensured this team would at least stay even with the other teams vying for the Eastern Conference wild-card spots.
What Washington doesn’t know, though, is whether that one point will be enough three weeks from now.
“You never know when it comes down to it if it’s in or out by one point,” Marcus Johansson said. “You never know. Hopefully it doesn’t.”