Evgeny Kuznetsov beats Jonathan Quick to score the winning goal for the Capitals late in the third period. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

This mid-February game between the Washington Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings was dubbed a potential Stanley Cup finals preview, and the way it unfolded Tuesday night did little to dispel such anticipation. At least some semblance of playoff hockey came early to Verizon Center.

Maybe the postseason atmosphere put Justin Williams at ease; he is nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” for his heroics in those playoff situations. This may have been the regular season, but playing against his former team meant more to him.

In a tie game late in the third period, Williams corralled a rebound and passed it from behind the net to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who banked it in off the opposite post to give the Capitals their first lead with 2 minutes 2 seconds left. Kuznetsov raised his hand and spun his finger to mimic a red goal light. His goal would hold as the game-winner in a 3-1 win over the Kings. Jason Chimera added an empty-net goal in the last minute.

“I love tight-checking games,” Williams said. “I love when both teams are competing at a high level. I love when we win.”

The Capitals have often saved their best hockey for the third period, and they outshot the Kings 7-1 in the first 11 minutes after the second intermission Tuesday. That they were in a position to be tied in the third was a credit to backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who finished with 39 saves.

With 2:28 left in the game, Grubauer stopped a breakaway chance by Anze Kopitar, who had already scored a shorthanded goal in the first period. Washington got the rebound and barreled up the ice. Andre Burakovsky’s first shot was saved, but with four red jerseys in front of the net, Williams got the rebound and fed Kuznetsov.

“If you listen to Justin on the bench and what he says to his linemates and the guys on the bench, he finds a way to pull people into the fight,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He does it by example. He finds a way to get things done. That’s his talent.”

Trotz said he had seen a decline in the team’s sharpness recently. Washington wasn’t as crisp in practice, and some execution in recent games had been poor. Williams said a game against an opponent like the Kings “was sort of a benchmark to see where your team is at.” For the Capitals, they didn’t measure up in the first half of the game.

“At times, and at times not so much,” Trotz said when asked if it felt like a postseason game. “We weren’t involved in the playoffs there in the second period and even in the first.”

With the second period about to expire, Washington was lucky to be down by just one goal. The Capitals were being outshot, allowing the Kings a whopping 31 shots on goal in the first two periods. With 10:49 left in the period, Washington had just 11 shots of its own. But the Capitals turned it on late in the period.

With less than a minute left, defenseman Dmitry Orlov sent a perfect slap pass toward the net and Burakovsky deflected it in with the blade of his stick. Burakovsky has 17 points in his past 14 games.

Brooks Orpik got a secondary assist on Burakovsky’s goal, making an impact in his first game since Nov. 10. Orpik, who had missed 40 games with a lower-body bone injury, was paired with Orlov in his return. Orpik said he’d keep his expectations realistic because rust was natural after such a long layoff, but he finished plus-1 with the assist, two blocked shots and five hits in 16:43 of ice time, including 2:42 shorthanded.

“I think I just wanted to get into it quick,” Orpik said. “I think taking a couple penalties probably wasn’t good for our team, but it was good for me personally. Just getting a couple penalty kills in gets you in the game quick.”

With both teams atop their respective divisions, the matchup was touted as a potential preview for another meeting in June. For Williams and Mike Richards, the game had special significance because it was their first time playing their former team. Williams had said earlier in the week that he’d like to say “it’s just another game, but it’s not.”

There will be one more game between these teams in the regular season, and if everything breaks right, there may be more to come after that.

“All in all, happy with the result,” Williams said.