“We got away from our team identity right from the start and you can see the difference,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “When we started to play to our identity and started to be physical and forecheck the whole game changed. We need to do that for a whole 60 minutes. That hasn’t been a problem for us to get our starts, but it was tonight and it ended up in the back of the net.”
The Capitals (3-2-2) dug themselves an early deficit when Braden Holtby allowed three pucks past him in the game’s first eight minutes. Coach Todd Reirden pulled him in favor of 22-year-old rookie Ilya Samsonov, who allowed a fourth goal on a power play barely a minute after entering.
Samsonov rallied, however, and stopped 19 of the next 20 shots he faced, but committed an ill-timed turnover early in the third period that led to Matt Nieto’s goal with 15:36 remaining that pushed the Avalanche lead back to three goals.
Down 4-0 after 20 minutes, the Capitals punched back. Washington outshot the Avalanche, 16-7, in the second period and outhit Colorado, 12-4. to only be down 4-2 entering the third. Goals by Lars Eller at 6:56 and T.J. Oshie at 15:28 cut Colorado’s lead in half.
“We just weren’t there,” Eller said. “That is the best way to describe it. We just weren’t there. . . . Maybe we thought we were better than we were. It looked, I can’t speak for everybody, but it looked like we thought it was going to be easier than it was.”
Samsonov’s mistake early in the third period led to Nieto’s goal and swung the momentum, but Alex Ovechkin’s power-play goal with 2:21 left trimmed the margin back to two. Moments later, it looked like the defenseman John Carlson had pulled the Capitals within one with a goal but replay review determined Washington was offsides, wiping away the goal.
Nathan MacKinnon’s empty-netter with 39.2 seconds left sealed it for Colorado (5-0-0).
The game was physical, and the Capitals lost defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler midway through the third period after a collision with MacKinnon. Siegenthaler went to the locker room immediately afterward and did not return.
The Capitals’ blue line was already without Michal Kempny (hamstring), with Reirden stating Monday he was hopeful for Kempny’s return this week.
Eller broke the seal for the Capitals early in the second period when Ovechkin pounced on a poor pass from Mikko Rantanen. The captain poked the puck to Eller, who slid it past former Capitals netminder Philipp Grubauer, who made 29 saves en route to winning for the third time in as many starts.
Oshie made it 4-2 when he finished off a slick passing sequence from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov for his fourth goal.
“In that position, you just have to do something to do a wake-up call,” Ovechkin said. “It was frustrating, but yeah we all make mistakes and I think we didn’t respond well in the first period after the first and second goal.”
In addition to Grubauer, who was traded to Colorado in the summer of 2018, the game also marked the return of ex-Capital forward Andre Burakovsky, who was dealt to the Avalanche in the offseason following a trade request, according to General Manager Brian MacLellan. Before Monday’s contest, Burakovsky said he didn’t completely agree that he “requested” a trade, but told the organization that he wanted to “play more and if that wouldn’t be with the Caps, then it would be somewhere else.”
Burakovsky, who had game-winning goals in each of his previous two games, contributed early. He recorded an assist on Colorado’s first goal off a left point shot from Erik Johnson at the 3:42 mark of the first period and set a screen on Holtby to block his view of Johnson’s shot.
Colorado flew right back down the ice, tallying its second goal on its second shot of the night at the six-minute mark from Nikita Zadorov. Nazem Kadri’s goal at the 7:54 mark of the first period was about all Reirden needed to see from Holtby, who was ushered off for Samsonov.
“Just got to find a way,” Holtby said. “Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it doesn’t. Just have to find a way to help the team win and it is on me to make sure I improve that and it is frustrating.”