LOS ANGELES — It was a comeback and a goal fitting for Hollywood. Dmitry Orlov danced through the slot, freezing three Los Angeles Kings and sniping the puck past goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The Washington Capitals played a hockey game on Wednesday night, so as has become essentially automatic, the Capitals found themselves trailing. Just as expected was the comeback that waited until the third period.
This time, they tied the game with three unanswered goals in the third period to force overtime. Once there, a Jeff Carter goal decided it, lifting the Kings to a 4-3 win, but that the Capitals were able to escape with a point at all was impressive. But the game left Washington with a familiar conundrum: How to reconcile the resilient comebacks with the pattern of starts?
“As a coach, there’s nothing more that I can say; I’ve brought it up probably 50 times this year,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “Everybody is trying to jump on us in the first, and we’re letting them. That’s something we’ve got to correct because we won’t be able to do that come playoff time.”
Talk of Washington constantly falling behind has been exhaustive and hardly exclusive to this season, but for the NHL’s top team, this might be its most glaring weakness. The Capitals’ greatest strength might be their ability to make up for the lackluster starts, which leaves the team with a mixture of pride and frustration.
Washington has now allowed the first goal in 12 of its last 14 games, and entering Wednesday night’s game, they had won eight of those.
“It’s been our Achilles’ heel,” Justin Williams said. “Our starts have been terrible. We can’t comeback every night. It’s certainly not going to happen. We need to jump on that. That’s been a problem for us.”
“Everyone makes a big deal out of it,” T.J. Oshie said. “We don’t really think about it too much. We just need to be better at the start. It’s obviously a stat that we’re not doing good at. We just need to pick that up.”
Down 3-0 to start the third period, the Capitals got their first power play one minute into the final frame, and they took advantage. A cluster in front of the net left a rebound from Marcus Johansson’s shot loose in the crease. Oshie got to it, and with Kings goaltender Quick down and his own defenseman clustered on top of him, Oshie whistled the puck past Drew Doughty, who was attempting to man the net.
With 8 minutes 58 seconds left in the third period, Nicklas Backstrom cut the deficit to one goal, punching in a shot with Quick playing far out of the crease. It was Backstrom’s first goal since Feb. 2. That set up Orlov’s thrilling equalizer in the last four minutes, ensuring the Capitals would pull at least a point.
“We’re excited about the point, and we’re upset we didn’t win,” Oshie said. “I think for the most part, we look at our start, and we correct that, we’d be happy with the rest of our game.”
Three minutes 13 seconds into the game, Jay Beagle went to the penalty box for tripping, giving the Kings an early power-play opportunity. Alec Martinez fired from the point, and the puck bounced off Tanner Pearson, then the skate of Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik before ricocheting off the skate of Vincent Lecavalier and into the net.
That kind of fluky goal less than five minutes into a game is typically forgivable. On Monday, Alex Ovechkin declared that scoring the first goal makes it a “totally different game,” forcing teams to make a push and perhaps play looser defensively.
Facing the league’s best puck possession team on Wednesday night, Washington was outplayed through 30 minutes, and the score reflected it. Jake Muzzin made it a two-goal deficit for the Caps in the first period with a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle. Less than two minutes later, on a three-on-one rush, Jeff Carter fed Milan Lucic across the crease, and Lucic’s finish gave the Kings a 3-0 lead.
That gave the Kings as many goals as Washington had shots through 13 minutes and 26 seconds of play. Meanwhile, Los Angeles had 11 shots on goal. The comeback came, but a familiar problem persisted.
“I feel like I’ve talked about this the last 20 games,” Backstrom said. “I think we have to find ways to start the game better. As I’ve said before, we’re not going to be able to do this every night.”