With two minutes left on the clock, what was once a confident Washington team was scrambling to weather a fervent push from the desperate Colorado Avalanche. As the seconds ticked down, the crowd at Verizon stood, serenading their stellar goaltender with his very own arena-wide chant.
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored the game winner as they spoiled the start of Colorado’s five-game road trip and earned their sixth straight home win. After two dominating periods for the Caps and one nail-bitter of a third period, Washington eked out another important two points for the home crowd.
“We have to make this building hard to play [in] because we have home advantage,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to keep the ball rolling. It’s a good feeling here in the locker room, we feel pretty good about ourselves.”
He was careful not to feel too excited about the win though, adding, “again, when you win you always feel good, but tomorrow is a new day…”
“We want to make our home rink obviously tough to come into,” Washington goalie Braden Holtby said of the string recent of wins at home. “We can even tell. You start winning, it’s only six games [but] the fans support, and they’re into it. We’re finally giving them something to cheer about. We’re feeding off of it and we want it to stay that way”
Holtby made his 25th straight start of season, dueling with former Caps goalie and current Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov.
“It’s a great building to play defense,” Varlamov said of his homecoming. “[The] defense is pretty good here. I still have lots of memories, [Washington] was my first team and they gave me a chance to play in the NHL, so it’s really fun to play here.”
Washington went up to an early lead when forward Jay Beagle put in a backhanded rebound for his sixth goal of the year from his ever-changing line mates of Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera. The Caps are now 22-1-3 this season when lighting the lamp first.
Caps forward Eric Fehr had a great chance to start second but failed to elevate the puck past the lightening fast Varlamov. The Avs goalie did get some help from the pipe early on, with prime chances from Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom all ringing shots off of the iron. Kuztensov had possibly his best game of the season, seeing great scoring chances but bad puck luck.
Washington coach Barry Trotz was not surprised by the stellar play from the Russian, calling him “a very talented guy.”
“I think, if you saw him playing junior, the way that he can make plays,” he said. “He’s got this really good vision; he’s got hands, and he’s skating well. I think his puck protection has been really good. His detail in the D zone has been good. When you get chances you are going to produce.”
Washington got their second shot at a power play when Nate Guenin got whistled for tripping. With 11 seconds left on the power play, Joel Ward tripped up Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog and landed himself in the box, giving the Avs their first power play of the game.
Colorado evened the score on the ensuing power play. Avs veteran Jerome Iginla got a step on defenseman John Carlson and sent the puck to the rushing Alex Tanguay. Holtby made the first save on Tanguay but failed to get back for the rebound, which Tanguay buried for his 11th of the season.
Varlamov cost his team a skater and an eventual goal when he lost his cool in the final minutes of the second period, giving a blocker to the face to Wilson, who was hovering in the crease.
Avs forward Danny Briere sat for the penalty, which was ended prematurely by Ovechkin with his 22nd of the year on his team’s third chance on the man advantage for the night. Washington has now scored a power play goal in five of their last six games.
The play started with work behind the goal by Marcus Johansson, sending the puck to Backstrom, who then passed to Troy Brouwer. Brouwer saw a sneaking Ovechkin all alone at the left faceoff circle and sent him a backhand pass. The Capitals captain took the puck forehand, backhand and then five hole on his former teammate and friend Varlamov.
“Great play by Brouwer,” Ovechkin said. “He knows I’m there obviously. I just have to put [the] puck in.”
It was Ovechkin’s 74th game-winning goal of his career; surpassing Peter Bondra to top the Caps franchise record.
Fehr went to box for holding, sending the Caps to the penalty kill less than five minutes into the third. With Fehr a constant on the penalty kill, the Caps lost one of their top killers with the forward in the box. Thankfully for those in red, the Caps retained their lead through the man-down play.
Varlamov was pulled with over two minutes left in the game and Colorado loaded on the pressure with their extra skater. The game was almost knotted at two when Tanguay slid the puck behind a diving Holtby. Narrowly avoiding the goal line, the puck went wide past the far post and a waiting Iginla.
Verizon center chanted their goalie’s names as the final minute of the game ticked down in agonizing fashion. An empty net goal was waved off when Carlson shot a clearly offside puck into the net, bringing the faceoff to center ice.
Withstanding a final push from Colorado, the Caps escaped 2-1 after sitting back on their heels in the third, being outshot 18-6 in the final frame.
“It was almost like a flip of second and third,” Holtby said. “You got to give a team like that credit. They’ve got a ton of speed, a ton of skill. You put a little desperation like that in their game and they’re going to make a hard push.”
Despite the push, Holtby said he felt no sense of uneasiness out of his team.
“I thought we gave up a few shots but I don’t think we panicked in any situation. That really was the difference.”
Trotz cited “the little details” as the change between the first two periods and the third.
“You saw good structure in the first two periods, then in the third, the little details – the four feet one way or the other, a half swing versus stopping on the spot – that type of thing,” he said. “Those are huge seams for very skilled people. So, we need those details.”
Ovechkin credited the win to a commitment in the system.
“When we play our game, we play the system…We feel good about our goalie, and he feels good,” he said. “He’s been playing unbelievably, and we feel like we can win hockey games. Sometimes we just need to get one – when he makes a save or we make a big play in a big moment, and then the team feels like we can do it; we can win.”
Always modest, Holtby was quick to share the wealth with the rest of his teammates, crediting them for his calmness in net.
“I think our whole team, we keep rolling, we keep trying to do the right things to improve,” he said. “You can tell. Our whole line-up trusts each other our there.”
Jay Beagle received the Caps reward for most “honest” player of the evening, the Honest Abe hat and matching beard. After being passed around to every member of the team this season, the beard has adopted the strong smell of a postgame hockey locker room odor.
Holtby failed to see that as a bad thing.
“There hasn’t been one guy in this locker room that hasn’t deserved it on a given night,” he said. “We truly believe we have some of the most depth in the National Hockey League. Guys are really finding their roles, what they’re going to do to help the team win. When you do that, you pass the hat around a lot.”