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Alex Ovechkin returns with a goal, but Capitals can’t stop Avalanche

Avalanche 3, Capitals 2

Alex Ovechkin returned after missing one game with a lower-body injury and scored in the third period of Tuesday's loss to the Avalanche. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER — The Washington Capitals got their captain back but lost another key piece of their already shorthanded lineup Tuesday night during a 3-2 defeat to the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena.

Alex Ovechkin returned to the lineup after missing Saturday’s lopsided loss at Vegas with a lower-body injury, but winger Tom Wilson left the game midway through the second period after he blocked a shot with his right leg. Wilson gingerly made his way to the bench and then headed to the dressing room shortly after. The team later announced he had a lower-body injury and would not return. Coach Peter Laviolette said after the game that Wilson would be listed as “day-to-day.”

Tuesday brought Wilson’s eighth game since he returned from ACL surgery on his left knee. He had posted two goals and one assist. Center Nicklas Backstrom and winger T.J. Oshie also were out of action Tuesday — Backstrom with a non-covid illness and Oshie for personal reasons.

T.J. Oshie’s back has long been a concern. He’s trying not to think about it.

Washington was down two goals entering the third period after Colorado’s Alex Newhook beat goaltender Darcy Kuemper (23 saves) late in the second. Ovechkin cut Colorado’s lead in half with a one-timer from the left circle at 9:44, his 31st goal of the season and No. 811 in his career. Ovechkin — who recorded 23:32 of ice time, most among Washington’s forwards — said after the game that he was “not 100 percent” but played anyway.

An impressive showing by Colorado goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (37 saves) kept the Capitals from finding the tying goal as the defending Stanley Cup champion seized its sixth straight win. Washington has dropped five of seven but played much better than it did in Saturday’s 6-2 defeat in Las Vegas.

“We try hard,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “That was a pretty competitive game from both teams, and they got their goals. We had our push; we made it a one-goal game. In the end, I felt like we got some good looks — we just did not score.”

The loss ended Washington’s three-game trip out west. The Capitals’ next game is Thursday at home against rival Pittsburgh. Both teams have 56 points and hold Eastern Conference wild-card spots, but the Penguins have three games in hand — and Buffalo, Florida and the New York Islanders are within five points of them both.

“If we just stick with it, stick to our game plan and continue to grind away, then try to move our way up the standings every night, then I think that is good signs [of what is] to come for us,” winger Conor Sheary said.

Washington had its chances in the first period. Sheary got two looks in the first 10 minutes; he hit the post on a breakaway.

Artturi Lehkonen gave the Avalanche a 1-0 lead with 11:03 left when he took a feed from Nathan MacKinnon off the rush and beat Kuemper. MacKinnon took a big bump from defenseman Dmitry Orlov but managed to poke the puck to Lehkonen for the goal. The assist was MacKinnon’s 700th career point.

Andrew Cogliano gave Colorado a 2-0 lead early in the second period by redirecting Kurtis MacDermid’s shot. It appeared Cogliano was trying to get out of the way, but instead the puck deflected off him and found its way into the net.

Sheary finally lit the lamp at 4:48 of the second, redirecting Martin Fehervary’s point shot past Georgiev. The goal ended a 12-game drought; Sheary’s most recent goal was Dec. 27 at the New York Rangers.

Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:

From last week: Tom Wilson is back, and life for Capitals fans is a little bit better

Backstrom, Oshie out

Backstrom is listed as day-to-day, and his status for Thursday is uncertain. The 35-year-old has three assists in seven games since returning from offseason hip resurfacing surgery.

Oshie, who has 10 goals and seven assists in 32 games, was out after he returned to Washington for the birth of his fourth child.

Protas gets his shot

Aliaksei Protas played in his first NHL game since Jan. 5. The young forward centered the third line, skating between Sheary and Anthony Mantha. He was on the ice for 12:20 and put three shots on goal.

Protas was called up from the American Hockey League before the Capitals’ three-game trip. He performed well for Washington to start the season, but the returns of Backstrom and Wilson forced him out of the lineup. With Hershey over the past few weeks, Protas played on the wing because of the Bears’ depth at center.

“I thought Protas came in and gave us really good minutes,” Laviolette said. “Good for him to come up and not have played for a bit here and jump right back in and look good.”

Cup winners back

Kuemper and winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel returned to Colorado for the first time since they won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche last season. Kuemper said it was special to play in Denver against his former teammates, but he had faced former teams in the past so this game was no different.

Kuemper and Aube-Kubel received their championship rings when Colorado beat the Capitals in Washington in November, but the Avalanche welcomed the pair back to Denver with a video tribute celebrating their Stanley Cup contributions. Kuemper got choked up after the game when asked about the moment.

“It was a lot of mixed emotions,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “Pretty special being back. Yeah, it meant a lot.”

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