DENVER — The Washington Capitals began the weekend on a four-game winning streak, but after games on the road against a pair of the NHL’s best teams, their momentum skidded to a halt.
The speedy and opportunistic Colorado Avalanche seized an initial lead less than three minutes into Sunday night’s matchup and never trailed as they handed Washington a 4-1 loss that featured several traits that are developing into bad habits for Coach Adam Oates’s club.
From the uneven start to giving up a goal quickly after working to tie the score and — again — failing to convert on a lengthy five-on-three at a key juncture in the contest, the Capitals managed to follow up their successful run last week by capturing only one of four possible points on this trip.
“Disappointed with our last two efforts, but we know that we’re playing really good hockey teams,” Troy Brouwer said of the losses to Colorado and Phoenix, which currently sit second and fourth in the NHL. “We were right there with them. We were able to put ourselves in a position in the game and in the third period in both games to try and win.”
Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was nearly flawless against his former club again, recording 33 saves, and his teammates provided plenty of support with four goal scorers.
Whether it was the altitude or something else, Washington looked a step — sometimes two — behind the Avalanche in the opening period. Colorado pounced on turnovers and errant bounces to create chances in transition, and its ability to take advantage of any mistake surfaced immediately when, less than three minutes in, Braden Holtby (33 saves) played the puck around the end boards only to have it carom awkwardly to start a chain reaction that ended with the puck behind him.
As the puck ricocheted out, rookie defenseman Nate Schmidt redirected it and wound up sending it out toward the top of the circles where veteran winger Cody McLeod swiftly sent a backhander on net. Patrick Bordeleau tipped the puck in front for a goal that was reviewed to determine whether the puck was hit with a high stick. Ultimately, the score stood to give the Avalanche a 1-0 lead only 2 minutes 50 seconds into the contest.
Even though the Capitals struggled to gain territory — it wasn’t until Alex Ovechkin fired a long-range shot at 9:47 that they recorded a shot on Varlamov — and combat Colorado’s cycle as they zipped the puck around in the first period.
“We spotted them the first goal, but I was quite pleased with how that didn’t affect our game. We didn’t let it rattle us. We hung in there. We played a decent hockey game,” Oates said. “They had a couple moments, they did, but I thought it was a decent game. We spent a lot of time behind their net. We wore them out once we got our legs.”
For as out of sorts as they were in the first, the Capitals found their bearings in the second period. They thwarted an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to Jason Chimera in the early stages of the period, and Holtby withstood quality chances in front by Bordeleau, a pair of tries by Paul Stastny as he drove the net and a wide-open look for John Mitchell.
At the 15:48 mark of the second, it was Washington’s ever-dependable third line that knotted the contest. Mikhail Grabovski won a faceoff in the right circle and shot the puck off the end boards, causing it to pop out in front, where Joel Ward was unguarded. Ward tucked the puck past Varlamov’s outstretched right leg to make it 1-1 for his eighth goal of the season and second in as many games.
“When Wardo scored that goal, I thought we might have caught our break to get back in because it should have been probably 3-0 by then,” Holtby said, going on to detail some of Colorado’s chances. Karl Alzner “made a great play on [Matt] Duchene’s breakaway to take a penalty. A couple more breakaways and they easily could have been out of our reach then. A little thing like that if you catch a break, tie it up 1-1, you’ve got to capitalize on it. We didn’t.”
The tie lasted only 28 seconds. On the shift following Ward’s goal, the Avalanche gained the offensive zone and captain Gabriel Landeskog worked the puck behind the net, pulling all of Washington’s players low in the zone. Landeskog fed defenseman Nick Holden, who recorded his first career point when he blasted a one-timer past Holtby to reestablish Colorado’s lead at 2-1.
“They do a good job cycling. They do a good job switching sides with the puck. They cycle it behind the net,” Brooks Laich said. “We get in trouble when we chase guys behind the goal line. The guy behind the goal line is the least dangerous guy on the ice. He’s the only guy on the ice that can’t score.”
The Capitals then experienced a scare that could have been far more damaging than a one-goal deficit when Ovechkin tripped on the stick of Colorado defenseman Jan Hejda and went into the corner boards hard. Ovechkin was slow to get up but appeared to avoid any significant harm and didn’t miss a shift. He was angry at the officials more than anything else as he barked at them once he returned to the bench and kicked the boards.
“I think it was a trip. I hit head into boards,” Ovechkin said, gesturing to his right cheek. “I don’t know what the referee doing out there, but it was clear two minutes and they just play.”
In the third period, the Capitals had an opportunity to pull themselves back in the game when Cory Sarich hooked Tom Wilson and the Avalanche was whistled for too many men on the ice, offering up 56 seconds of a two-man advantage.
But as has been the case all season, Washington’s top-ranked power play struggled in a five-on-three and mustered only one shot on goal. The Capitals are scoreless in five opportunities and 5:46 of five-on-three time this year and have failed to convert on 11 consecutive such power plays dating from last season.
“It’s all about five guys out there,” Ovechkin said. “I think we have chances to score, but we didn’t. When we didn’t score five-on-three in a long time you just have I think frustration moment. This happens, and we have to fight through it.”
A little more than a minute after all of the power-play time had expired, PA Parenteau took advantage of a disorganized defensive showing to put the Avalanche up 3-1. Landeskog added one final flourish with 100 seconds remaining, The Capitals didn’t have much to show except frustration after the whistles in the final 11:48.