LOS ANGELES — The Washington Capitals have reached the point in their season where desperation must be a way of life. They can’t afford to come away from any game without points and that urgency was evident Thursday night as they pressed against the smothering, stingy Los Angeles Kings.
While they grinded back from a one-goal deficit to tie the game on a goal by Joel Ward with 7 minutes 36 seconds remaining in regulation to earn a point and force overtime, the Capitals ultimately fell, 2-1, in a shootout to the Kings at Staples Center and saw their winning streak snapped at three.
“It took us a little while to feel them out and once we did we tried to expose some of their weaknesses,” Mike Green said. “They’re very well structured in the way they play. It makes it tough but I thought we played well against them tonight. Unfortunately we didn’t get that last point that we desperately need but we’ll keep pushing, we’ve got San Jose [Saturday] and we’ll make sure we get our points down the road.”
Los Angeles netminder Jonathan Quick was superb, finishing with 21 saves, repelling a smattering of stellar opportunities as the Capitals established a rhythm in the second half of the contest. He also thwarted two of three skaters in the shootout. His counterpart, Jaroslav Halak, played an equally strong game, finishing with 27 saves, but allowed goals to Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik in the tiebreak session. Washington hasn’t won a game in a shootout since Dec. 15 against Philadelphia.
That the Capitals came away with one point was important, but on a night where four of the teams they’re jockeying with for a playoff spot all recorded regulation or overtime wins — Philadelphia, Columbus, Detroit and New Jersey — the loss prevented them from keeping pace with the pack.
Washington, with 77 points, sits one point back of the Rangers, who reside in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and the Blue Jackets, who sit third in the Metropolitan Division, owners of the division’s final guaranteed playoff berth. Washington doesn’t have tiebreakers against either team.
Thursday marked the first time the Capitals have seen Los Angeles this season and while its reputation as the strongest puck possession team in the NHL is no secret, opponents often need time to adjust to the way the Kings take away time and space, making it appear as though they shrunk the rink.
Try to chip the puck off the boards? The Kings block it. Try to make a lackadaisical pass through the neutral zone? The Kings pick it off. Get in the offensive zone with possession? The Kings knock you off the puck. There’s little room for opponents to operate and fleeting seconds to make a decision before Los Angeles skaters converge.
“I thought the first period we came out a little slow, for some guys it’s the first time in this building and they’re a good team,” Coach Adam Oates said. “I think we started making better decisions with the puck, and because of that we got into their zone and we kind of did a little bit of what they do. They grind it out and we grinded it out with them.”
For as much as they have the puck, the Kings aren’t an overwhelming offensive club — they entered the game ranked 27th in the league, scoring only 2.35 goals per game — but they managed to get on the boards first.
The Kings grabbed the initial advantage 14:09 into the first period. Gaborik beat John Carlson to the loose puck deep in Washington’s zone. From behind the goal line, Gaborik sent a pass in front, where Anze Kopitar raced toward the net with a step on Karl Alzner. Kopitar sent a shot between Halak’s legs for a 1-0 Los Angeles lead. It marked the first time in four games that the Capitals failed to score first.
Washington continued to fight itself with off-the-mark passes in the early stages of the second and mustered a total of eight shots on goal through the first 31 minutes of play. It wasn’t until the second period began to wind down that they truly challenged Quick and fought back against the Kings.
“You can see how we play in neutral zone, we have the puck we put it right back and we don’t give them position to change,” Alex Ovechkin said of the adjustments in Washington’s game. “I think our forecheck in the second period was pretty good and we control the puck in the zone, that’s most important thing.”
Defenseman Dmitry Orlov blasted a shot from the slot on a rush up ice but it was turned aside by a pad stop from Quick. Seconds later, a bouncing puck in front resulted in a chance for former King Dustin Penner, but Quick managed to knock the puck away with the flat part of his glove. Then Ovechkin made a power move out of the corner toward the net but Quick poke checked the puck off the star winger’s stick. Troy Brouwer took a turn, on a partial breakaway, only to be thwarted by the Los Angeles netminder as well.
Washington continued chipping away, until finally, on its 17th shot of the night, the equalizer came. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a slick move when he began to wrap around the net but pulled up near the right post and sent a pass to Ward in front. After stopping the puck with his skate and pushing it to his stick Ward sent a shot high, above Quick, to pull the Capitals even with 12:24 gone in the third period with his 22nd goal of the year — and fourth in as many games — to secure one valuable point for the visitors.
“We’re just trying to collect as many points as possible,” Ward said. “Two points is obviously the goal, it’s a little frustrating when you come up that short when you’re so close.”