Here’s how bad it got for the Washington Capitals Monday night at the Staples Center: Much of the last two periods was devoted to a social media guessing game regarding Capitals beat writer Mike Vogel‘s least favorite musical acts. As entertainments go, it certainly beat anything the Caps served up on the ice as they fell to the Los Angeles Kings 5-2 — their second straight loss — and ensured that they would return home from their two-game California swing empty-handed.
The game started well enough, as Marcus Johansson potted the first of his two goals 94 seconds in when he finished off a 2-on-1 break by wristing a shot past Jonathan Bernier to give Washington a 1-0 lead. But despite their early deficit, Los Angeles had the better of the puck possession, scoring chances, and shots, and their pressure finally paid off with 8:19 left in the first period when Kyle Clifford banged a rebound past Tomas Vokoun to tie the game.
The Kings took the lead for good with just 33 seconds to go in the first period after Brooks Laich’s stick was lifted far too easily by Anze Kopitar. Kopitar, in turn, started and finished a 2-on-0 with Dustin Brown after the former tipped in the latter’s shot-pass.
The second period will surely go down as one of the most uninspiring periods the Capitals will put together all season, if not one of the outright worst. Los Angeles made the score 3-1 just 3:01 into the period when Jack Johnson finished off a 3-on-1 by firing a shot past Vokoun from between the face-off circles and “Tebowing” in celebration, because, well, why not? Three Kings goals became four Kings goals with 3:33 left when Jarret Stoll beat everyone to a loose puck and flicked it into the net.
Michal Neuvirth replaced Vokoun to start the third period, and the Capitals sleepwalked to the end of this one. Along the way, the Kings recorded a fifth goal, this time on the power play, when Justin Williams jammed the puck past Neuvirth. Johansson capped the scoring with his second of the night and ninth of the season, a one-timer into a vacant net from close range whose only long-term significance will be to give the Swede that much more leverage when negotiating his next contract.
Washington was missing Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom, and though the Capitals defense made several mistakes in this one (Dennis Wideman lost sight of Clifford on the first Los Angeles goal, the 3-on-1 that led to the Kings’ third goal was made possible by a collision between Roman Hamrlik and Joel Ward, and John Carlson and Karl Alzner allowed the Kings to get far too comfortable in front of the net before the fourth and fifth goals), they badly missed Backstrom. It was to be expected that the offense would struggle in Backstrom’s Rene Borque-enforced absence, since the 24-year-old leads the team in points (42) and assists (29) and is tied for second on the team in goals scored with Jason Chimera (13). But not even the most pessimistic Capitals fan could have imagined the offense putting in quite so poor a performance as it has in these past two games. It’s no coincidence that Alex Ovechkin, who carried a seven-game point streak to California, was completely shut down in both games, denied the time and space that came with Backstrom playing alongside him.
The impact of Backstrom’s absence isn’t limited to his perennial linemate, either. If we have learned anything from the most recent Stanley Cup champions, it is that winning teams need three essential characteristics: good luck with injuries, solid goaltending, and at least three lines that can score. To take the most recent example, the Boston Bruins were able to roll lines centered by Patrice Bergeron (who should be a Selke finalist at the very minimum this season), David Krejci, Chris Kelly, and Gregory Campbell. Bergeron and Krejci are two of the best forwards in the game, while Kelly is a good complementary piece, and even Campbell is a serviceable third-line center in a pinch.
By contrast, the Capitals have been famously bereft of even a true second-line center for what seems like forever. Tomas Fleischmann was given every opportunity to secure the role before being shipped to Colorado for Scott Hannan in November 2010. Last year’s trade deadline acquisition Jason Arnott was also unable to fill the role satisfactorily, and though Johansson has shown flashes of potential, he currently does not have the ability to develop into an every day second-line center.
Backstrom’s absence accentuates the Capitals’ offensive depth problem, and make his return to the lineup a matter of utmost importance (so long as the Caps training staff remembers that head injuries are to be tested with great delicacy). In the meantime, each of the offensive players on this team have to realize that they can only turn to General Manager George McPhee so many times to bail them out with a second-line savior. At some point, the strength to do must come from within the group. Or else.