In a year when they are running away with the NHL's overall standings, the true measure of the Washington Capitals has been the third-period comeback. It was something former King Justin Williams was remarking on before the game — how the Capitals' one true Achilles' heel this season has been their slow starts, which they've had to correct with fast finishes.
It proved true again Wednesday night.
The Capitals spotted the Kings a three-goal first-period lead, but then roared back with three third-period goals of their own to square the score and force overtime at Staples Center.
In the end, the Kings pulled it out 2:50 into overtime with Jeff Carter scoring against Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby to give them a 4-3 victory.
It was the Kings' 10th overtime win of the season. On the winning goal, with the teams playing three on three, Kings defenseman Drew Doughty made an intelligent play, taking the puck out of the zone, circling in the neutral zone and catching the Capitals on a line change. In the end, Milan Lucic took the feed from Doughty and sent it across to Carter, who put it in.
Washington went into the game with a league-leading 84 third-period goals, so it wasn't entirely unexpected that they would push back hard. T.J. Oshie started the Washington comeback with an early power-play goal at 1:46 of the third. Goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Dmitry Orlov squared the game and forced overtime.
Until then, it was a tale of two different games.
The Kings paid tribute to their past in the first period — warm well-received video appreciations for both Williams and Mike Richards — and then reminded people for a time that they can be pretty good in the present too.
“Any time you get a reaction like that, you're going to have some emotions,” Williams said. “I'm not a stiff, you know? I'm not a robot. But obviously nice to see, but kind of after that, it was just a standard hockey game we're trying to win and obviously trying to come back and win with the start we had.”
For 40 minutes, one could argue it was the Kings' most complete stretch of the season, thoroughly dominating a Capitals team that many believe is the Stanley Cup favorite.
It was a textbook playoff-style performance, all choking defense, proof that when the Kings are on their game, they can still be a handful for anybody, even a team with the Capitals' offensive pedigree.
The Kings have had an up-and-down time of it, of late, frittering away a big lead atop the Pacific Division to their Southern California rivals, the Anaheim Ducks.
But with the Ducks losing in Colorado and the Kings winning against the Capitals, they are back in first place.
Kings Coach Darryl Sutter can probably rest easy now. Just the other day, he insisted that the No. 1 goal was just making the playoffs. Well, they have a 20-point lead over fourth-place Vancouver with 16 games remaining.
Sutter loaded up one line — shifting Carter to right wing with Anze Kopitar and Lucic — and it paid dividends with a number of dominating shifts against a Capitals team that was having trouble handling the Kings' size and physical play.
Carter made a nice cross-ice pass to Lucic, who an easy tip-in at the left post, for the Kings' third goal, after center Vincent Lecavalier (on the power play) and defenseman Jake Muzzin (at even strength) staked them to an early 2-0 lead.
Tanner Pearson recorded assists on each of the first two goals.
According to Lucic, “a big part of their success and a big part of our success is playing physical — and I think we learned a good lesson today, in that third period, that we can't take anything for granted. Even though we were up 3-0 and had such a great start, when we don't play the right way, we let teams back in it.