It didn’t matter how the Washington Capitals put pucks on net or whether the shots came from point-blank range, as wide-sweeping one-on-one chances or on bang-bang looks off rebounds tight around the crease. Semyon Varlamov was superb Saturday night.
In his first start against the Capitals since they traded him to the Colorado Avalanche in July 2011, Varlamov baffled the team that drafted him, handing Washington its fourth loss in five games to start the season.
Varlamov held the Capitals without a goal until the third period, at which point the Avalanche already had established a four-goal lead. The 25-year-old Russian netminder finished with 40 saves and a nearly flawless outing to hand Washington a 5-1 loss at Verizon Center while extending Colorado’s unbeaten streak to five.
Washington (1-4-0) dropped its third straight, and the frustration in the home dressing room was palpable. Varlamov deserved credit, the Capitals said, but their focus lies more in what they deemed an unfit work ethic.
“Last year and this year — it’s looking to be like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” Troy Brouwer said, referencing the Capitals’ 2-8-1 start last season. “Playoffs should be the furthest thing from our minds. As of right now, we should be working on hard work, battling in practice, crisper passes — our passes out there were embarrassing at times. Three passes in a row in the skates, can’t get in the zone . . . no wonder why we can’t sustain any pressure.”
Alex Tanguay put Colorado ahead 1-0 with 6 minutes 42 seconds gone in the first. The veteran winger’s shot deflected off John Carlson and then between Michal Neuvirth’s legs.
In helping kill the first penalty of the game, a high-stick minor on Mike Green, Neuvirth (23 saves) made a series of strong stops in various stages of scramble, including a stunning save on Steve Downie at the left post. Eighteen seconds after that highlight, however, the Avalanche led 2-0 when Matt Duchene skirted around Karl Alzner and skated in on net to roof a shot over Neuvirth’s glove at 14:22.
It let the air out of the building and gave the red-hot Avalanche even more momentum. Varlamov wasn’t tested often in the first, which may have worked in his favor.
“I got too excited today to play against my old team, against Washington,” Varlamov said. “That’s why I think I am too nervous. In the warmup my legs were shaking. The whole first period my legs were shaking, but after first period, I feel so much better.”
As Washington’s desperation to create any offense rose in the second period, Varlamov was at his best. When Mikhail Grabovski gained control of the puck in front and swept around the crease looking for an angle, Varlamov boldly came out to challenge, eliminating the threat.
Alex Ovechkin, held without a goal for the first time this season, had a long-range snap shot turned aside by Varlamov’s blocker.
Martin Erat set up Green low in the right circle, but that too was pushed away, this time by Varlamov’s pad with just more than 13 minutes remaining in the middle period.
Ovechkin continued to push, but even when a shot bounced up and off the Colorado netminder it fell right in front, allowing Varlamov to smother it without so much as a thought of a rebound opportunity. Then Marcus Johansson swept down the wing, curled in front and was thwarted by Varlamov. The third line buzzed but came up empty. Tom Wilson too, had a quality opportunity stymied by Varlamov.
Then came a costly mistake. Washington was whistled for too many men on the ice with 3:56 remaining. Nathan MacKinnon, the 2013 first overall draft pick, put the Avalanche up 3-0 with his first career goal on the power play with 2:19 remaining in the second.
“The second period, it’s a shame we come out down in the period, but we played our best period of the season,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It was the only mistake we made all period — we had too many men.”
Eric Fehr, who would score Washington’s only goal in the third period to make it 4-1, didn’t think the loss could be attributed to that specific error.
“We put ourselves in tough situations all night. We’ve just got to be smarter and play harder,” Fehr said. “I don’t think we can point a finger at one penalty. I think in general we’ve just got to work harder.”