The Capitals slow start to the season absorbed a gut punch Saturday night in the form of a 5-1 loss to the undefeated Avalanche. It prompted veteran players to sound off about the team’s work ethic and should make for an interesting two days as Washington prepares to host another fast Western Conference squad, the Edmonton Oilers, Monday night.
Five thoughts on the loss to Colorado.
1. Varly returns. Semyon Varlamov was nervous for his first start against his former team, his first start in Verizon Center since April 6, 2011. So nervous that his legs were shaking throughout warmups and the first period, but you couldn’t see the nerves to look at him hold the Capitals to one goal on 41 shots.
Varlamov hasn’t allowed more than one goal in any of his four starts and has a stunning .970 save percentage through that span. He’s benefited from the new coaching staff, which has allowed him to work with his idol Patrick Roy and highly respected goaltending coach Francois Allaire. As they’ve pushed Varlamov to improve his own game, the young talented group of Colorado forwards seems to be coming into their own as well.
Saturday night the Capitals could do little to solve Varlamov or contend with the Avalanche’s overall skill up front.
“We play different system, different hockey,” Varlamov said. “I think guys play better defensively right now. They help me a lot out there. The guys play better, I play better.”
Varlamov looked like his explosive self, stopping a variety of shots – perhaps no more impressive than when he managed to somehow get to the left post in time to make a save on Tom Wilson with roughly seven minutes left in the second period.
“What I like about Varly is he’s under control,” Roy said. “He’s always square to the shooters, he gets out of the net, he’s playing with a lot of confidence and he deserves it. The success that he has, he has done it on his own.”
It was a special night for Varlamov to come back and play in the building he used to call home. That much was evident in his humble responses after the game, his stick salute to the crowd and his appreciation for the reception he received from fans.
“In the warmup I saw lots of jerseys with my last name. I want to say to those fans thank you, thanks for coming,” Varlamov said. “They still remembering and I was excited to see those jerseys.”
3. Neuvirth’s start. Conversely, Michal Neuvirth didn’t come away with an ideal first start of the season. He made a few strong stops in the first period, including a difficult save on Steve Downie after going side-to-side while the Capitals were killing off a Mike Green high sticking penalty. But when Matt Duchene comes down the wing and fires a beauty of a shot above your glove hand on the next rush up ice, the preceding save loses some of its luster.
“I’m sure there’s one or two Neuvy wants back,” Coach Adam Oates said. “But he hasn’t played, so in fairness to him he’s got to get his chance.”
Of all the goals Neuvirth allowed the one he would probably like back most was Colorado’s fourth tally. While shorthanded, Alex Tanguay found the tiniest bit of daylight between Neuvirth’s glove and the right post to give the Avalanche a 4-0 lead early in the third period.
3. Colorado’s skill. Saw two things that don’t happen all that often Saturday night. The first was on Duchene’s goal, which was a world-class move and shot on his part. As he came down the right wing Duchene faced Karl Alzner, one of the Capitals’ strongest one-on-one defenders. Alzner was in good position but Duchene made a nice inside move to push the puck past the defenseman’s stick in order to get one heck of a shot on net.
The second was when Ryan O’Reilly pickpocketed Nicklas Backstrom in the neutral zone in the latter half of the second period. It was an uncharacteristic turnover by Backstrom, who seemed to be caught unaware as O’Reilly snatched the puck away and started a rush in the opposite direction. Both of these instances were good plays by the Avalanche, but it also offers a glimpse of Washington’s overall showing on the night.
4. The third line. If there was a silver lining to the loss, it was how well the third line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward played. In addition to recording Washington’s lone goal, they combined for seven shots on goal, 13 total attempts and were the only line to really generate quality scoring chances off of their zone time against the Avalanche. Working as a unit they crashed the net, managed to get multiple rebound and redirect chances.
“Varly played pretty good, his rebound control was good. I had a couple rebound shots and it seemed like he was right there,” Jason Chimera said. “He covered the bottom half really well or our line could have had three or four goals. You’ve got to put those in the back of the net. We had some zone time but Varly hats off to him he played a good game.”
5. Ch-ch-ch-changes? Coach Adam Oates likes to be patient. He likes to give players, line combinations and special teams units time to work out the kinks in their game. Aside from occasionally swapping Jay Beagle and Michael Latta in on the fourth line he’s stuck with the same forward lines through the first five games of the season. But after a 5-1 loss to Colorado and 1-4-0 start, will he change things up and try out some of the other possible configurations?
We’ll find out at Sunday’s practice. We’ll find out at Monday’s morning skate. The Capitals canceled their Sunday practice and instead are holding a team meeting at KCI.
“We talked about it a little already,” Oates said, and “told the coaches to think about what we’ll do.”