In a matchup of two of the NHL’s heavyweights, the Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings put on quite a bout on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
The Caps Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game winner with 2:02 left in regulation when former King, Justin Williams, fed #92 on the left post for a tap in after LA goalie, Jonathan Quick (29 saves), was cut off by his own teammate, Kevin Gravel in the crease.
Jason Chimera then added an empty net tally with nine seconds remaining to make it 3-1.
This was a hard fought victory for Washington. After a decent opening 10 minutes they chose to play the “easy game” for the next 25 minutes and as a result, found themselves trailing, 1-0, on an Anze Kopitar shorthanded marker with 3:17 left in period one. Caps Coach Barry Trotz noted that his club, like they did in Dallas in the second period on Saturday, was playing too much of an “east-west” game. Once again the Capitals were attempting high risk, cross ice passes instead of getting pucks in deep and paying the physical price to score. Too often it was a one in and one out sequence in the Washington offensive zone. They weren’t working hard to support the puck and that allowed the Kings to dominate the shot totals and scoring chances.
Fortunately for Washington, Philipp Grubauer (39 saves) was the great equalizer. For 35 minutes he kept the Caps in the game until they got their brand of heavy hockey going. Chimera noted that the team didn’t make any adjustments to spur the comeback, they just started moving their feet and putting bodies on opposing players to win the loose puck battles. Simply put, the Capitals returned to what makes them so successful, heavy hockey. The Kings are a big team with the likes of Milan Lucic, Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford, Jeff Carter, and others, but the Caps are big too with skaters such as Tom Wilson, Chimera, Alex Ovechkin, and Brooks Orpik.
The Capitals roster is also deep, and with the return of Orpik (1 assist, +1, in 16:43) they were able to roll their three defensive pairs while Los Angeles relied heavily on its top four blue liners, especially their top pair of Drew Doughty (1 assist in 31:29) and Jake Muzzin (28:49).
Through 40 minutes, Doughty and Muzzin were both over 20 and 18 minutes respectively while Coach Trotz’ top defensemen, John Carlson, was just over 15 minutes. Similarly, Washington was rolling its four lines and that allowed the Capitals to dominate the first nine minutes of period three. The Kings didn’t have a shot on net during that span and it took some super saves from Quick to hold the fort for the visitors. Andre Burakovsky, who scored the Capitals first tally by going to the net and deflecting home a Dmitry Orlov point shot with under a minute left in period two, had a great chance on a two on one rush, but somehow #32 got his shoulder on a shot targeted for the top shelf.
Not to be outdone, Grubauer made a few point blank saves in the slot area to keep the game tied before Williams and Kuznetsov found a way to give the Caps the lead and eventually the win.
It was a super intense contest and credit the Kings for bringing their “A” game against Washington, but the Caps are just so deep and continue to take early punches then find ways to win hockey games. They aren’t always doing it the way their coach would like, especially the recent second period swoons, but the way they are carrying the final frame is a testament to their depth. When you are deep and can play a physical style that wears opponents out, it leads to strong finishes. On this night, the Caps certainly finished strong to beat one of the league’s best squads (and recent two time Stanley Cup Champions).
Going forward, the recent return of Carlson and then Orpik on Tuesday night on the back end will be a huge advantage. Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 22:40, but the lowest defensemen total was for Nate Schmidt with 13:27. That’s shows a fairly proper spread of blue line minutes and will pay off over the next two months when the Capitals will be playing a lot of hockey. When both Carlson and Oprik were out, Niskanen was routinely playing up in the 27 to 28 minute range, and that is just too much over the long haul. Coach Trotz noted that those guys, Niskanen and Karl Alzner, made it seem like the team wasn’t missing Carlson and Orpik because those two played so well. Trotz also stated that there is an upcoming stretch where they’ll play six games in nine days with the last one involving a cross country trek to Anaheim, so having the ability to spread the minutes is huge for his club.
Orpik, when asked afterwards if it makes a difference, noted the advantage this Capitals team has with a big standings lead and the depth on the blue line.
“I think so for sure, last week playing in Minnesota you see a guy like Ryan Suter plays almost 35 minutes. Over an 82 game season and hopefully playoffs, I don’t care how good of shape you are in, that just takes its toll on you. Especially tonight, there’s two to three minutes left and you see we got our fourth line out there. Coach trusts them in a tight game, that’s what you need. You can’t just wear your guys out down the stretch, especially with how physical the games get.”
Managing the minutes will be important, but should the Capitals take guys out of the lineup down the stretch to prepare for the playoffs?
“I think it’s a fine line too, you’re kind of in a similar situation to Pittsburgh when I was there. A few years we had big leads and sometimes we started resting some guys and taking them out of the lineup and that doesn’t really work so well. I think maybe backing off of the minutes on some guys you can do to keep everybody going, keep the rhythm going. Every year, if you look at that team which battles to get the last playoff spot has success. They have to play hard that last month and just roll that right into the playoffs. It’s not a league where you can say ‘ok, we’re going to turn the switch on now’ after four for five guys resting for a week or so. But definitely minutes wise you can be a bit smarter and back off guys,” finished Orpik, who Coach Trotz said played well in his return to the lineup after missing 40 games. He noted Oprik’s excellent passes and said that he and Dmitry Orlov were the second best defensive pair against the Kings.
The ice time management will be something to watch as the Caps, now 41-10-4 (86 points), play their remaining 27 contests.
Washington continued its season long streak of following up a regulation loss with either a non-regulation loss or a victory. On Tuesday, it was another W as they rode their back up goalie, Grubauer, for as long as they could until the team found a way to score a pair of greasy, going to the net type of goals that you must get to beat a super club like the Los Angeles Kings.
Notes: LA won the face-off battle, 33-25. No Caps player won more than half of their draws. Jeff Carter was 13-3 for the Kings…Doughty had an assist on the Kings goal when he thwarted a Marcus Johansson pass intended for Ovechkin in the slot. If the pass goes through, it’s an easy goal for the Gr8. That’s a big reason why Doughty is the best defensemen in the NHL, he can play at both ends of the rink at an elite level…each team had 33 hits, it was a “heavy affair.” Niskanen had six to lead the Caps while Brown had five for LA…Ovechkin had 15 shot attempts, including 10 on goal in 19:29 of work…next up for the Capitals are the Islanders in Brooklyn on Thursday night. The Caps are 2-0 against New York this season.