DENVER — For several days, the Washington Capitals have talked about the importance of stringing several wins together to gain points, build confidence under Coach Dale Hunter and simply get some positive momentum rolling.
But on Saturday night their seesaw swung again as they wrapped up a two-game road trip by falling, 2-1, at Pepsi Center to the rebuilding Colorado Avalanche, which is 25th in the NHL standings.
The Capitals dropped to 4-5 under Hunter, have split their past six contests and have been unable to win more than two games in a row since they opened the season 7-0. While the matchup against the Avalanche was a sloppy outing by both sides, Washington barely showed hints of the composure that helped it obtain a victory two nights earlier in Winnipeg.
They made the same mistakes that have plagued them when they’ve struggled this season — failing to chip pucks in and establish a forecheck offensively, not clearing the puck out of their own end and improvising rather than playing within the system. It was a one-goal game entering the third period, but the Capitals (16-14-1) had little fight as Colorado (15-17-1) hemmed them in their own zone to squeeze the final 20 minutes out of the game.
“I think a lot of times we were doing things on our own. That’s what we were doing when we were losing a lot of our games and we got back to it again tonight,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We didn’t have a good enough answer for them in the third. Those are the times we try and tell each other, ‘Just keep it simple,’ and then for whatever reason we go out there and we don’t do it.
“That’s the main thing, when you look at everything in trying to get off this rollercoaster ride is always doing the same thing – we’ve got to be methodical and work hard,” Alzner continued. “You see the teams that do that are usually successful and that’s what we’re not doing enough of.”
Michal Neuvirth finished with 26 saves but didn’t look nearly as comfortable as he did when he pitched his first shutout of the year against the Jets on Thursday.
A strange shot just 2 minutes 49 seconds into the game appeared to catch Neuvirth off guard and gave the Avalanche a 1-0 lead. Cody McLeod’s attempt from the blue line floated into the zone, over the goaltender’s left shoulder and into the net. Neuvirth told reporters after the contest that it was a “horrible” goal and that he lost sight of the puck when it was in midair.
After allowing the early goal, Neuvirth started to bounce back but he didn’t possess his usual efficiency in net when making even routine saves.
“I think the puck was bouncing all over the place tonight and I don’t think it was just me,” Neuvirth said. “It’s not easy when you let that bad goal early in the game, but I thought I bounced back. It’s tough. It’s a disappointing loss but it’s tough to win when we score just one goal.”
In the other end, Washington opposed veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere (25 saves) and did not get a chance to face its former first-round draft pick Semyon Varlamov, who was out with what Colorado Coach Joe Sacco called a “minor back injury”.
There was little flow to the contest after the Avalanche took the initial lead on the fluky goal. Throughout the contest, pucks seemed to have minds of their own. Passes went off the skates of linesmen and referees, and bounced awkwardly off the boards, contributing to the haphazard play. But that didnt’t excuse the Capitals’ inability to put pressure on Colorado, the youngest team in the NHL, which owned the 26th-ranked penalty kill in the league entering the game.
On Washington’s power plays, the best opportunities went to the Avalanche. In the first period, rookie Gabriel Landeskog broke free for two shots. In the second, Ryan O’Reilly collected the puck for a short-handed breakaway that Neuvirth kept out with a left-pad kick save. Coupled with Washington’s sudden inability to convert at even strength — it has just three goals at five-on-five over the past three games — the missed power-play opportunities make for a stalling offense.
“We’ve got to find a way to score some goals five-on-five, we’re not doing enough to get five-on-five goals,” Jason Chimera said. “Our power play’s got to get better, we’ve got to get more sustained pressure. We must need that lecture a little more. We’re playing just good enough to be in games — we’ve got to play better to win them.”
With 13:09 gone in the second period, Alexander Semin put the Capitals on the scoreboard with a wrist shot that zipped into the top right-hand corner of the net, beating Giguere short-side. It marked Semin’s first goal in nine games, since Nov. 23 in Winnipeg, but the 1-1 tie wouldn’t last long.
Just 54 seconds later, Colorado took back its advantage. Erik Johnson took a shot from the right point through gridlock in front of the Capitals’ net, and it’s possible the puck redirected before entering the net to make it 2-1 and knock the visitors back on their heels.
In the third, Washington couldn’t find a way to establish itself offensively and looked slow against a spry, energetic Avalanche lineup. The Capitals went without a shot from Karl Alzner’s 60-foot slap shot 2:15 into the third until Jason Chimera snapped the puck toward Giguere with 14:23 elapsed. They finish the third tied in shots (seven) with the Avalanche, but it was an effort that came too late.
“It’s pretty hard when you play pretty good, I think, but you don’t win the game,” Alex Ovechkin said. “These kind of situation you want to stay together when we lose the game. It’s kind of situation where you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘What are you doing over there? How hard do you play over there?’ ”
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a 17th consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. The defenseman rejoined the team in Colorado after visiting with a specialist about the injury earlier in the week. . . . Fourth-line center Mathieu Perreault did not return to the game after the first period because of an illness, according to a team spokesman. . . . Cody Eakin and Jeff Schultz were healthy scratches.