Five thoughts on Thursday’s loss:
1. Shootout struggles. Remember when the Capitals were nearly infallible in shootouts? That seems like a long time ago now. After falling to the Kings, Washington has lost its last five contests decided by the tiebreak to fall to 8-8 on the season in shootouts. The Capitals’ last shootout win was Dec. 15 against Philadelphia.
Of Washington’s three shooters on Thursday — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom – only Kuznetsov recorded a goal against Jonathan Quick. It was a doozy of a shot by the rookie, placed between the top of Quick’s right pad and his stick, on his first shootout attempt in the NHL.
But then Ovechkin’s attempt to go between the legs was smothered by Quick and the goaltender knocked away the try by Backstrom, who is 6 for 14 on the year. For one reason or another, Ovechkin has struggled mightily in the tiebreak, going 2 for 15 on the season.
He’s received more chances in the shootout than any other Capital (the only one he didn’t take part in was on Nov. 2 vs. Florida, when he was out of the lineup with a shoulder injury) but there’s something amiss. Goaltenders don’t necessarily make stellar saves to thwart his chances, but they take away the five-hole option late because they know Ovechkin has a tendency to try that shot.
It’s not surprising that Coach Adam Oates keeps going back to the person who has carried the bulk of the offensive load this season – and leads the NHL with 46 goals. But as points become increasingly precious for the Capitals perhaps the next time they reach the tiebreak it’s worth seeing how a different configuration could work for the first three shooters.
2. Kuznetsov. The early stages of Thursday’s game resembled culture shock for many of the Capitals as they were pushed off the puck, rattled with physical play and unable to complete even simple outlet passes against a Los Angeles squad that is extremely committed to its relentless defensive style. It was quite the introduction for Kuznetsov, who while having faced Pittsburgh in his first two games hasn’t ever seen a team like the Kings.
“I thought he was affected early in the game,” Oates said, “and it took him a while to get into the game.”
There were times where Kuznetsov tried to force a play, attempting to dangle the puck past multiple Los Angeles skaters only to be stopped in his tracks and then left out of position as they went the other way with the puck. But, like the Capitals as a whole, as the game progressed he made the necessary adjustments.
His play to set up Ward’s game-tying goal was a superb misdirection. On the play, Kuznetsov carried the puck in along the right-wing boards from the blue line and began to skate around the net only to pass the puck out in front as he reached the right post.
“He’s got great hands, that’s what he’s known for, but he’s got to recognize when those plays are available,” Oates said. “He can’t turn it over early, can’t turn it over entering the zone, can’t get too cute, but he does have the skill set that when he does have some time and space he can make plays.”
It’s going to be a gradual evolution for Kuznetsov, but it’s neat to watch how he adapts on the fly at this early stage because there’s no question his skill level is tremendous.
3. Ward. The Capitals’ feel-good story of the year keeps getting better as Joel Ward continues to make a positive impact. His game-tying tally marked his 22nd goal of the year, his 13th five-on-five tally and extended his current scoring streak to a personal best four games.
As has been well documented, Oates challenged Ward to be more than a bottom-six role player when he took over as coach and the 33-year-old winger has run with the opportunity. Ward isn’t just a solid two-way player anymore, but someone who can make a difference at either end of the ice on any given night.
His defensive instincts, along with the rest of his third-line mates, help move the puck quickly out of the Capitals’ zone. But when they’re in the offensive end Ward can consistently be found lurking in the weeds around the crease, biding his time while waiting for a rebound or a centering pass. Once those opportunities come, Ward’s confidence is readily apparent. He fights off opponents to protect the puck and will battle for second- or third-chance opportunities like his goal against the Kings.
4. An absence of even-strength goals for a certain right wing. Ovechkin has scored six goals in the 12 games since the Olympic break but only one of them came at even strength and that was back on Feb. 27 at Florida.
He had opportunities against the Kings, including a chance when he emerged from the corner and drove to the front of the net but Quick poke checked the puck away before he could take a shot. Ovechkin finished the game with three shots on goal, one blocked shot and six attempts that missed the net. Of those misses, five came at even strength and Ovechkin acknowledged something seems a little off.
“When I have opportunity to shoot the puck, I try to see where goalie is and that kind of situation when you look where the goalie … it seems like it’s too late,” Ovechkin said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to find a way but I have to score five-on-five, especially that chances what I have, they have to be in 100 percent.”
5. Second time’s the charm? By their own admittance, the Capitals took some time to adjust to Los Angeles’s style of play as it was the first time the teams had met this season. Washington will get another crack at the Kings, though, in just five days at Verizon Center.
“It’s the same reads all the time and I think sometimes when you play a team that you haven’t played and they won the Stanley Cup recently – [the Capitals] know that and they’re in a foreign building — sometimes you’re a little behind on your reads and it takes some time to get into the pace of the game even though we played two nights ago,” Oates said. “I’m proud of the guys, the way they stood up to it. Second half of the game we kind of took it too them we had a lot of good chances and I think we carried the pace a little bit.”
If they can take the lessons from this shootout loss and find a way to get involved the game before the midway point of the second period, it should serve them well in the on-going quest to capture wins down the stretch.