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Joel Ward comes through for Caps yet again in Game 7

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Joel Ward comes through for Caps yet again in Game 7

Just call him Mr. Game 7. With the Caps and New York Islanders locked in a scoreless tie late in the second period, it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom who finally beat Jaroslav Halak. When the team needed it the most, when Halak was playing vintage Halak and frustrating the Caps at every turn, it was Joel Ward, that unlikeliest of heroes who again stepped up for the Capitals with a critical Game 7 goal to finally put the Capitals on the board.

“You want to be in that moment and you want to make plays and you want to be that guy,” Ward said after the game.

Ward is never going to challenge Ovechkin for the most goals on the team, but he does seem to score the important ones.

It was Ward who came through in Game 7 in 2012 against the then defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, scoring the series-clinching overtime goal. And on Monday night when the team needed him the most, it was Ward who again stepped up for the Caps.

“When you keep hammering away, hammering away, eventually the tree’s got to fall,” Ward said.

Ward’s playoff success may not be a surprise when you consider why he was brought to Washington in the first place.

Looking to bolster his team’s playoff roster, former Capitals general manager George McPhee signed Ward as a free agent in the summer of 2012 following in impressive playoff run. As a member of the Nashville predators, Ward tallied 13 points in 12 playoff games.

When it comes to the postseason, Ward is able to find the extra gear, that extra motivation to drive him to success.

“You get in the playoffs, you don’t want to go home, you want to keep going.”

Now thanks in part to Ward, that’s exactly what the Capitals are doing.

RELATED: Capitals reflect on tough series victory over Isles

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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.

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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”

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