Goalie Jaroslav Halak has given the Washington Capitals something they've lacked for most of the season between the pipes: consistency.
Halak, acquired at the trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres, has started seven consecutive games, including Washington's shootout loss, 2-1, to the Los Angeles Kings March 20.
The Caps trailed for most of the game, but winger Joel Ward scored, on a feed from rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov, with 7:36 remaining during regulation. That forced overtime, allowing Washington to capture at least one point as they fight for a Stanley Cup playoff spot.
Washington now has three of four possible points on its current three-game West Coast trip, which will conclude March 22 at the San Jose Sharks.
Halak has a .935 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average for the Capitals, who gave up netminder Michal Neuvirth to acquire him. He's 4-2-1 in a Capitals uniform.
When comparing those stats with goalie Braden Holtby's recent performance, it's no mystery why head coach Adam Oates has turned to Halak during a critical stretch of games.
Holtby has a .908 save percentage and 3.75 goals-against average during his past five games, all after the Winter Olympics break. He is 2-1-1 and registered a no-decision March 5, when he was pulled after allowing four goals on 18 shots to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Kings' goal was one of the few bad ones Halak has allowed. Kings center Anze Kopitar's shot beat Halak to the short side on a set play late during the first period. Kings speedy forward Marian Gaborik had raced to collect what would have been an icing, and fed Kopitar, who scored from 13 feet.
But Halak, 28, kept the Capitals close with some solid saves during the third period. He bailed out defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who lost the puck behind the net with less than 12 minutes remaining. That led to a point-blank opportunity for Kings forward Dwight King, but Halak stopped it.
Ward has scored during four consecutive games, giving him a career-high 22 goals this season, 14 of which have come at even strength.
Ward created some space for himself against Kings defenseman Drew Doughty as Kuznetsov wheeled around the right side. From behind the net and seemingly headed for a backhand wraparound, Kuznetsov on his forehand slipped the puck across the crease to Ward, who beat Kings goalie Jonathan Quick over his right shoulder.
ONE, NOT TWO
The Capitals had great chances to take two points, but Quick stuffed them.
Caps forward Troy Brouwer had two opportunities during a four-on-three power play in overtime. Washington center Nicklas Backstrom found Brouwer alone in the slot and put the puck on his tape, but Quick blocked the shot, and captain Alex Ovechkin missed the rebound.
Forward Dustin Penner was alone in front of Quick during the second period and came away with nothing. Penner had collected a rebound and lifted the puck, but not quite high enough, as Quick got his glove on it to preserve the Kings' 1-0 lead.
Penner, a trade-deadline acquisition, has yet to score in a Capitals uniform. He has one assist during nine games.
During the shootout, Kuznetsov scored for the Caps, but Ovechkin and Backstrom missed. Ovechkin is 2-of-15 in shootout opportunities. Oates usually selects Eric Fehr (5 of 9) early during shootouts. Backstrom is 6-of-14.
11 TO GO
With 11 games remaining, the Caps are still outside of a playoff spot. They have 77 points after 71 games. The New York Rangers (78 points, 70 games) currently hold the final spot, while the seventh-place Columbus Blue Jackets (78 points, 69 games) also are within striking distance.
San Jose is terrific at home (26-5-4), but not unbeatable. The Florida Panthers topped the Sharks, 3-2, in San Jose, Calif., March 18.
The Sharks (99 points) rallied for two third-period goals March 20 to defeat the visiting Anaheim Ducks, 3-2.
After this trip, it won't get any easier for the Caps on home ice. They will host the Kings March 25 and the Boston Bruins March 29.