There were a few snow flakes in D.C. on Friday, the first of the season and a reminder that Father Winter is just starting his yearly torment.
On Saturday, Washington was hit by an Avalanche.
The Capitals dropped their fifth straight game on Saturday, losing 3-2 to Colorado before the 78th consecutive sellout at Verizon Center.
To be fair to the Caps, they actually played pretty well.
Washington outshot the Avalanche 42-26. Hits were tied at 25 each. The Caps had a solid 13 takeaways. In the third period, attempting to climb out of a 3-1 hole, they dominated the Avalanche zone, forcing Colorado’s young team to hold on for dear life in the last ten minutes of the game, barely squeaking away as the Capitals repeatedly banged on netminder Craig Anderson’s door.
It was a solid effort.
“I think the effort was great. How we play against Florida and how we play against the Avalanche today are two different teams. We didn’t get two points but we have to play the same way,” Alex Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin has not always been at the top of this game this year. He has taken shifts off, entire periods sometimes. His numbers are still good but it seems at times that he has gone the way of computer virtualization — into the cloud. On Saturday, though, there was more life to the Russian superstar. He had three shots, three attempts blocked, two missed shots, three takeaways and five hits (tied for the game-high with Colorado’s Ryan Wilson).
Coach Bruce Boudreau said that he liked what he saw from his team, much more than recent games, and thought that Ovechkin played better than he had done so recently.
“I thought that with Alex [Ovechkin] that there was a difference. He was skating, he was moving,” Boudreau said. “I thought he did a good job that way and I thought [Mike] Knuble was working and Nicky [Backstrom] was a little better but he could still play better. He tried. And, he is coming right out of the sickbed. He gave it everything he had.”
But, the frustration for the Caps is still there. It is one thing to play better, it is another to actually score goals and win games.
Frustration boiling over was what turned the game in the Avalanche’s favor.
Early in the second period, Alexander Semin was getting roughed up a touch. Not too unusual considering that the scouting report on the sniper is to be physical, but nothing out of the ordinary. The problem with Sasha is that he is one of the streakiest players in the league. When he is going well, he is hard to stop. When he is in a slump, it is a continual march to the penalty box and bad shots from the outside.
So, after a shot that Anderson covered up, Semin was getting some guff from a couple Avalanche players at the corner of the crease. Fed up with it, he cross-checked Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles and stood over him with what on the streets would be seen as a “yeah, I just messed you up, now what?” type of look. The hit drew blood and a larger scrum that Capitals forward Brooks Laich got trapped against the net in the trapezoid. Semin took a five-minute major for the cross-check and was tossed with a game misconduct.
“When you see it on replay, he extended his arms. I don’t know how hard he hit him but he extended his arms. He got cross-checked a couple times and he retaliated but, we’ll see. He was bleeding so I guess they have to make it five,” Boudreau said.
The Capitals were down 2-1 at that point and facing an overly-long penalty kill. They were able to keep Colorado out of the net for 3:46 but five minutes of continuous short-handed is an eternity in hockey. Paul Stastny made it 3-1 with a good cross-ice feed off the wing from rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and from there on it was a matter of Colorado just trying to hang on.
“We made three mistakes and they scored three goals. That is what happens when you are not playing well or in a slump or something. You are playing good, you get away with all those little mistakes,” Boudreau said.
There are some underlaying features of Colorado’s game that enabled it to keep its head above water, especially down the stretch where every Capitals possession literally spent more than a minute in the Colorado zone.
First, the Avalanche play with grit. They are a young team and perhaps do not know any better, but they sacrifice themselves to keep the puck out of the crease. That was evident by the 27 blocked shots they accumulated, a ton for a December regular season game. They were also able to win faceoffs, taking 54 percent on the night, an important stat when trying to hold possession to kill time off the clock. They are also fast, so whenever they could get sticks on loose pucks, they took off in the other direction, forcing the Caps to chase them and waste precious seconds.
“It certainly was a gut check tonight and I thought our guys responded real well,” Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. “I think maybe it got away from us for a little, but out identity is skating, our identity is playing an aggressive forecheck and style. I thought over the last few games we’ve done that for a majority of the game.”
In the end, the Capitals showed that they wanted to stop the bleeding. Five games is the longest losing streak in Boudreau’s tenure as head coach. The Capitals team that is often seen sleeping at the wheel, not going to the net and being generally disinterested was not present at Verizon on Saturday. Well, at least not in the third period. The the talent that is normally on the Caps roster, this should have been a win. Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Marcus Johansson and others are injured or ineffective and Washington was not at full strength. Who knows if those players were on the ice if the result would have been different. But the guys who did play tried hard to get two points and end their home stand of horror on a good note.
“That looked more like our team tonight. When things aren’t going well, that is what happens. It is on the upswing, it is not on the downswing,” Boudreau said.
Washington travels to New York to play the Rangers on Sunday. Back-to-backs are always tough but Boudreau feels there is definitely something to build on.
“It wouldn’t matter if it was next Saturday. We are going to build off of this and go. It is a different feeling, I think,” Boudreau said. “There is a different feeling of disappointment because we gave the effort and didn’t come away with it. It is a different feeling of not feeling that you played at the top of your form. I am hoping that other than the two points, they are taking a positive aspect out of this game.”