The Capitals held on to beat the Colorado Avalanche for their fifth win in six games. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Each time the Colorado Avalanche’s penalty-kill unit climbed over the boards Monday night at Verizon Center, hell-bent on thwarting their host’s most star-dusted weapon, one white sweater was explicitly tasked with shadowing Alex Ovechkin, no matter the cost. The calculus was simple: prevent one-timers from hissing off the captain’s stick, defend the remaining members of the Washington Capitals’ power play four-on-three, and live with the consequences.

So rather than operate inside the left faceoff circle, the office he had leased for several seasons since the Capitals adopted their 1-3-1 scheme, Ovechkin shuttled toward the net, playing “a cat-and-mouse game,” as Coach Barry Trotz called it. Ovechkin stationed himself just outside the crease and generated traffic, rather than drift alone on an island. He watched his teammates work. He waited for his turn.

When the time finally came during the second period, after Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was whistled for a roughing penalty, two crisp passes sprung Ovechkin free on the weak side. He had already blasted one shot off the crossbar, so Ovechkin instead skimmed a shot across the ice surface and through Varlamov’s five-hole, the decisive score in a 2-1 victory and Ovechkin’s 74th career game-winner, setting a franchise record. He moved past Peter Bondra for first place. Ovechkin also has scored a goal in six of his past seven games.

“If a team [is] going to play like that, it’s good for us,” Ovechkin said later, with an explanation as basic as Colorado’s plan to stop him. “I just have to put the puck in.”

On the bench, Trotz all but shook his head. He thought Ovechkin hadn’t measured up to his usual meteoric standards, missing shots and fumbling pucks. But in his short time helming the Capitals, just past the midway point through his first season, Trotz had also witnessed Ovechkin’s magic many times over.

The Capitals have been playing better of late, including a win for the ages in the Winter Classic. The Post Sports Live crew analyzes what's behind the team's improvement. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

In hammering Colorado with 38 shots on goal — its most in more than a month — riding 31 saves in another stalwart effort by goaltender Braden Holtby and surviving two harrowing minutes once Varlamov fled his post, Washington snatched its sixth straight victory at home and left Trotz telling himself, “But who scores the winning goal? Alex Ovechkin.”

As the Capitals rocketed into the second half of their 2014-15 schedule, sporting the NHL’s best record since Dec. 4, the forthcoming week became about greeting the recent past. Friday night, they would visit Nashville, where Trotz steered the Predators for their entire existence until his firing this spring. And Monday, an old first-round pick was perched inside the opposite net.

During pregame stretching, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov chatted up Varlamov near the red line. And midway through the first period, he almost put the Capitals ahead against his fellow Russian and former Capital with a blast that buzzed off the crossbar.

Changed out for the ensuing faceoff, Kuznetsov watched his teammates pick up the slack. After he won the draw and knocked the puck backward, forward Jay Beagle glided toward Varlamov, where he and linemate Jason Chimera would create traffic.

Near the blue line, forward Tom Wilson smacked a slap shot, part of the designed faceoff play the Capitals had recently begun running. The puck flopped off Chimera’s shin pads and found Beagle’s backhand. As Chimera wrapped him in a two-arm bear hug that launched both into the glass boards, Beagle celebrated his sixth goal of 2014-15, as many as he scored in the past two seasons combined.

“That’s the way we want to play,” Beagle said, “drawing penalties, mixing in a goal here and there. Makes it real hard on other teams when we want to play in their end.”

Despite the heavy possession disadvantage, the Avalanche tied the game midway through the second period with forward Joel Ward 11 seconds away from releasing after a tripping penalty. When Holtby flubbed a close backhand from Jarome Iginla, the rebound bounced straight to Alex Tanguay, who needed little effort to push the puck into the open net.

As the Capitals’ offensive-zone intensity increased following Tanguay’s goal, so too did Colorado’s proclivity to respond with force, in no more blatant fashion than after another strong shift from Washington’s fourth line.

While Varlamov covered the puck with his glove and the whistle blew, Wilson’s momentum carried him into the crease. From his knees, Varlamov looked up and shoved Wilson in the mouth. Stunned, Wilson grabbed his mouth and stumbled back. The officials tabbed Varlamov for roughing, to be served by forward Daniel Briere, a call that later irked Colorado Coach Patrick Roy into cursing during his postgame interview, “That’s [nonsense].”

On the penalty kill for the third time, the Avalanche again stuck someone onto Ovechkin’s hip. Again, they shadowed the one-timer and gambled against the rest, until a centering feed from Nicklas Backstrom and a no-look backhand from Troy Brouwer made them lose sight.

“Yeah, there’s something about that,” Trotz said. “When you need that goal, they find ways to score. And he does.”

by Alex Prewitt

Each time the Colorado Avalanche’s penalty-kill unit climbed over the boards Monday night at Verizon Center, foremost hell-bent on thwarting their host’s most star-dusted weapon, one white sweater was explicitly tasked with shadowing Alex Ovechkin, no matter the cost. The calculus was simple: Prevent one-timers from hissing off the forward’s stick, defend the remaining Washington Capitals’ power play four-on-three and live with the consequences.

So rather than operate inside the left faceoff circle, the office he had leased for several seasons since the Capitals adopted their 1-3-1 scheme, Ovechkin shuttled toward the net. He stationed himself just outside the crease and generated traffic, rather than drift alone on an island. He watched his teammates work. He waited for his turn.

When the time finally came during the second period, after Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was whistled for the first penalty of his career, two crisp passes sprung Ovechkin free on the weak side. He had already blasted one shot off the crossbar, so Ovechkin instead skimmed a shot across the ice surface and through Varlamov’s five-hole, the decisive score in a 2-1 victory and Ovechkin’s 74th career game-winner, a new franchise record.

In hammering Colorado with 38 shots on goal — its most in more than a month — riding 31 saves in another stalwart effort by goaltender Braden Holtby and surviving two harrowing minutes once Varlamov fled his post, Washington won for the fourth time in five games and for the 13th time since the beginning of December.

As the Capitals rocketed into the second half of their 2014-15 schedule, sporting the NHL’s best record since Dec. 4, the forthcoming week became about greeting the recent past. Friday night, they would visit Nashville, where Trotz steered the Predators for their entire existence until his firing this spring. And Monday, an old first-round pick perched inside the opposite net.

In 2012, Washington flipped Varlamov for first- and second-round picks, which through the transaction grapevine, years later, became forwards Michael Latta (scratched against Colorado) and Chris Brown (an American Hockey League starter in Hershey). The Capitals had since grown pleased with their netminding situation, with Holtby stabilizing the position by making his 24th consecutive appearance. But welcoming the scorching Varlamov — 3-0-0 over his past three games and the NHL’s “second star of the week” — still offered a reminder of what could have been.

During pregame stretching, forward Evgeny Kuznetsov chatted up Varlamov near the center red line. And midway through the first period, he almost put the Capitals ahead against his fellow Russian. Sneaking into the slot on a nifty give-and-go with defenseman Brooks Orpik, Kuznetsov buzzed the blast off the crossbar.

Changed out for the ensuing faceoff, Kuznetsov watched his teammates pick up the slack. After he won the draw and knocked the puck backward, forward Jay Beagle glided toward Varlamov, where Beagle and linemate Jason Chimera would create traffic.

Near the blue line, forward Tom Wilson smacked a slap shot, part of the designed faceoff play the Capitals had recently begun running. The puck never reached Varlamov, but it bounced off Chimera’s body and found Beagle’s backhand. As Chimera wrapped him in a two-arm bear hug that launched both into the glass boards, Beagle celebrated his sixth goal of 2014-15, as many as he scored in the past two seasons combined.

Despite the heavy possession disadvantage, the Avalanche tied the game after Joel Ward committed a tripping penalty in his offensive zone, not long before another Washington power play ended. When the advantage changed sides, with Ward 11 seconds away from releasing after a textbook kill until that point, Holtby flubbed a close backhand from Jarome Iginla. The rebound bounced straight to Alex Tanguay, who needed little effort to push the puck into the open net.

By the second intermission, the Capitals had already pelted 32 shots onto Varlamov, two away from doubling their entire total in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Detroit. As their offensive zone intensity increased, so too did Colorado’s proclivity to respond with force, in no more blatant fashion than after another strong shift from Washington’s fourth line.

As Varlamov covered the puck with his glove and the whistle blew, Wilson’s momentum carried him into the crease. From his knees, Varlamov looked up and shoved Wilson in the mouth. Stunned, Wilson grabbed his mouth and stumbled back. The officials tabbed Varlamov for roughing, to be served by forward Daniel Briere. For the third time, the Avalanche deployed their penalty kill. Again, they stuck someone onto Ovechkin’s hip, until a centering feed from Nicklas Backstrom and a no-look backhand from Troy Brouwer made them lose sight.