The Capitals have been battling attrition all season long. At no point has the team skated its full lineup. Injuries hampered the team early on and now COVID has forced head coach Peter Laviolette to shuffle lines on a daily basis. And yet, Washington has persevered. In a game against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, the team earned a 5-2 win despite missing three of its top four centers to claim the top record in the league.
But there is only so much a team can take. Eventually, games like Sunday become unavoidable.
"It’s tough," Justin Schultz said. "You’ve got guys coming in and out and you don’t know what your lineup is until the puck drops. It’s crazy right now, but no excuses here. We've got to find a way to get wins."
The Los Angeles Kings came to Washington on the backend of a back-to-back after losing 5-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. They were without Drew Doughty, Phillip Danault, Andreas Athanasiou, and Cal Peterson. Goalie Garret Sparks made his first NHL appearance since Oct .25, 2019 and Jonathan Quick played Saturday. It looked like things were setting up for a Caps win. T.J. Oshie, however, was unavailable after entering COVID protocol. The lineup shifted yet again from the morning skate to the game as Mike Sgarbossa was also added to the protocol after a positive test earlier in the day.
“It’s something the whole league is going through, so we all know that it might happen, so try not to let it get in your head too much," Connor McMichael said. "It’s the next-man-up mentality."
"We have to keep that life in our room and on the bench and we’ve got a lot of young guys, but we’ve got guys who are leaders too," Garnet Hathaway said.
It looked for a while like the Caps would manage another gritty win. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead and had six power plays including four straight minutes in the second period after Blake Lizotte was issued a hooking and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
So many times before, Washington has been able to dig deep and find a way to win no matter who was missing. On Sunday, however, they came up empty.
"We just didn’t have the juice tonight," Schultz said.
The Caps entered the game missing five of its projected top-six forwards. Evgeny Kuznetsov (COVID protocol), Nicklas Backstrom (COVID protocol), Tom Wilson (upper-body, IR), Anthony Mantha (upper-body, LTIR) and Oshie (COVID protocol) were all out leaving just Alex Ovechkin. Sometimes that's all the Caps need. He did his best and shouldered a massive load, logging a whopping 27:24 of ice time and firing six shots on goal and an additional 10 shot attempts, but it wasn't enough.
The main culprit for the loss was the power play as Washington went 0-for-6. The power play has struggled for much of the season without Backstrom, but the lack of top-six forwards exacerbated those issues. Players who are not normally on the power play saw significant roles such as Daniel Sprong (6:59 of power-play time), Hathway (5:01) -- who was activated from COVID protocol on Sunday and in his first game back -- and Aliaksei Protas (5:46).
Washington did not score a single power-play goal, but gave up a shorthanded goal late in the second as a depleted power-play unit could not keep up with the counterattack. Alex Iafallo beat John Carlson to the puck at the Caps' blue line, three different players converged on him in the defensive zone and that left Lizotte wide open and a step ahead of a back-checking Ovechkin.
"It's not the ones we didn't get that we're trying to work on, it's the one that we gave up and that's the one that we just needed to do better," Laviolette said. "We needed to do a better job."
“Anytime there’s a shorthanded goal it kind of defeats a team," McMichael said. "I think we had some good shifts after that, here and there we found energy. Overall I think we let them back in the game too much.”
Once the Caps found themselves playing from behind, there were not enough options on the bench to turn to for offensive support.
The formula that has worked all year for Washington almost came through again. The Caps have relied on a top-heavy offensive top line plus prospects to provide key offensive contributions. Joe Snively made his NHL debut Sunday and tallied his first NHL point with an assist on Connor McMichael's first-period goal.
"I thought [Snively] was good," Laviolette said. "It was good that he jumped in there. He brought some speed and tenacity, chipped in on a goal and off the forecheck. His line was good."
Justin Schultz made it 2-0 in the second. Had the power play been able to deliver, the Caps would have been had a stranglehold on the game.
But even Ovechkin can't score every game and his job is made harder when there are few other offensive weapons opponents have to account for.
"It wasn't a lot we gave up," Laviolette said. "It's a lousy feeling when you lose a game here. You feel like you're doing the right things and you're in control and we didn't get it done so that's frustrating about the game."
What the Caps have been able to accomplish this season given all their losses has been remarkable. On Sunday, it came up just short. Even so, you won't hear any excuses from the team.
"This is the world we live in," Laviolette said. "We had an extra forward here. We had 13 forwards thinking they were going to play tonight, I didn't know which one was out. For that reason, we wanted to be mentally sharp and ready to play. You dress extra forward, you dress extra defensmen, you take all the equipment to the rink and you deal with what comes. Everybody's dealing with it."