Fourth line powers the Capitals to a dramatic victory over the Kings

With 72 seconds left and the score tied Sunday afternoon, with a faceoff coming in the Washington Capitals’ defensive zone, three players predictably came over the boards. Center Nic Dowd and wingers Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Beck Malenstyn, as they do for the majority of the Capitals’ defensive-zone faceoffs, took their positions and prepared to win the puck.

Dowd won the draw against Los Angeles Kings winger Kevin Fiala, and the Capitals’ fourth-liners got to work doing what they do. Within seconds, they transitioned the puck out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone and deep into the Kings’ end. Dowd found the puck in the corner and slipped it to Aube-Kubel at the top of the left circle, and he spotted Malenstyn with space in the slot. Malenstyn fed defenseman John Carlson at the right point, and he unleashed a slap shot.

Carlson’s slapper sailed through the zone, perhaps deflecting off a Kings player in front of goalie Cam Talbot, and into the back of the net with just 52.9 seconds left. The Capitals beat the Kings, 4-3, at Capital One Arena to end a two-game skid in dramatic fashion after coming back from deficits of 2-1 and 3-2.

“A great sequence at the end,” Coach Spencer Carbery said. “I love what Nic Dowd’s line does there, driving the puck down into the offensive zone and then just doesn’t settle to just hold it. There’s a couple plays to be made there, and they made them.”

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The game’s first five minutes bore a striking resemblance to the Capitals’ previous two games: Washington couldn’t get out of its own zone, and the Kings were firing pucks at goalie Darcy Kuemper (38 saves) nonstop. But after a nervy first few shifts, the Capitals (19-13-6) found their footing in a way they hadn’t since Tuesday’s first period in Pittsburgh. They didn’t find the back of the net — unlike their four-goal onslaught against the Penguins — but it was a stable, controlled start that fashioned a solid foundation.

Dowd built on that 4:22 into the second period, sending a backhander on a two-on-one rush with Aube-Kubel past Talbot (30 saves) for the opening goal. That goal brought the duo’s first points of the day, but it wouldn’t be their last.

The Kings (20-10-6) rapidly erased Washington’s momentum. Adrian Kempe tied the score at 7:12 with a one-timer on the power play, and Fiala made it 2-1 just under six minutes later. Los Angeles dominated the middle portion of the period, and it showed on the scoreboard.

After center Evgeny Kuznetsov missed an assignment on Fiala’s goal, he didn’t play another shift in the period and skated just three in the third. The ensuing line changes — driven by what Carbery said, without naming Kuznetsov, was a sequence he “didn’t like” — put captain Alex Ovechkin with center Dylan Strome and winger Max Pacioretty.

On the line’s first shift, Pacioretty stole the puck from the Kings as they attempted a breakout and fed Strome for a close-range two-on-zero rush with Ovechkin. Strome tapped the puck to Ovechkin, who sent it back to Strome for a finish into a wide-open net — tying the score at 2.

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“With the way things were going, Coach gives you an extra shift there, you try to get out there and take advantage of it,” Strome said. “[Pacioretty] made a great turnover, and when you play with a guy like O, he knows the offensive instincts of the game and gave me an open net. It was a great play.”

That kind of response had been missing in recent games; Carbery said he was disappointed by his team’s lack of pushback in the third period against New Jersey on Wednesday, and the Capitals wilted down the stretch against Carolina on Friday.

Even when the Kings pulled ahead again 1:01 into the third period on a power-play tally by Fiala, Washington didn’t implode. The fourth line, which has six goals in the past five games, came through again to tie the score at 8:36. Aube-Kubel fired a wrist shot on the rush from the high slot that Talbot, who was screened by two of his own players, didn’t see coming.

The fourth line’s mandate is to match up against the opponents’ top players. On Sunday, as the Capitals’ fourth line produced three goals, the Kings’ top players didn’t record a point at even strength.

“They show up to the rink, and they know what they’re getting every single night,” Carlson said. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no ‘We’ll throw them a bone here or there.’ They’re grinding. Not just the goals — they wear a lot of teams down [with] the style that they play, the physicality that they bring. That’s important against great lines.”

In the final minutes of regulation, as both teams pushed for a go-ahead goal, the energy inside Capital One Arena felt more like a Saturday night game against a Metropolitan Division rival than a Sunday matinee against a Western Conference team. And when Carlson’s winner found the net, the noise lasted until after the final horn sounded on a victory.

“This was an important game for our group, and you could feel that at ice level,” Carbery said. “Sort of the way that you would script it for our group and the way things have gone the whole year and how we’ve found ways to win games. It was right on script.”

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