Sixty-five standings points separated the Capitals and the Colorado Avalanche when the two teams tangled on Wednesday night in Denver. But playing at altitude and playing for the second time in as many nights against a swift and skilled Avs team, the Caps knew the game against the league's worst team wasn't going to be as easy as the standings might indicate.
The Capitals got out of town with a 5-3 win over Colorado, but the Avs made them work for the full 60 minutes in order to get it done.
"We just didn't manage the puck very well," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Sometimes it's not what you get, it's what you leave. And we were leaving them a lot of stuff coming our way. We'll take the two points."
Washington's scorching hot power play staked it to an early lead in Wednesday's game. Shortly after Caps winger Brett Connolly drew an interference call on Avs defenseman Francois Beauchemin in the third minute of the game, Colorado broke out of its end on a three-on-one shorthanded rush. Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer made a stop on Colorado's Tyson Barrie, and the Caps quickly tore out of their zone on a four-on-one rush. Andre Burakovsky passed cross-ice to Evgeny Kuznetsov on the right side, and Kuznetsov dished to late guy John Carlson in the slot. Carlson beat Colorado's Calvin Pickard to give the Caps a 1-0 lead at the four-minute of the first frame.
Video: WSH@COL: Carlson finishes rush for early PPG
Colorado didn't look like a team with the worst record and the worst offense in the league in the first. The Avs were constantly creating and were frequently getting through neutral ice with speed. Colorado was able to generate some looks from the middle of the ice, and it tied the game on one such occurrence at 11:11 of the first. Nathan MacKinnon made a neat drop pass to Mikko Rantanen, who beat Grubauer from the slot to even the game at 1-1.
The Capitals responded quickly, regaining the lead less than a minute later. Jay Beagle carried into Colorado ice on a three-on-two rush, making a backhand dish to Tom Wilson on the right side. Wilson tried to go cross-ice with it, but the puck hit Beauchemin and kicked back out to the right point. Kevin Shattenkirk unleashed a drive from there, and Beagle deflected it top shelf to make it a 2-1 game at 11:48.
Video: WSH@COL: Beagle redirects Shattenkirk's blast
Grubauer preserved that one-goal lead with a big stop on MacKinnon, who broke in all alone after taking a feed from Sven Andrighetto along the left half wall.
"I didn't like the first period," says Trotz. "We turned the puck over and gave up a lot of chances. [We were ] just not sharp; blatant turnovers."
Video: WSH@COL: Johansson scores PPG on fortunate deflection
Washington was much better in the second. The Caps forged a two-goal lead with another power-play at 4:57 of the middle stanza. Shattenkirk's shot from center point with traffic clicked off T.J. Oshie's stick and then Marcus Johansson's chest before getting behind Pickard for a 3-1 Washington lead.
Just after the midpoint of the contest, the Capitals extended their lead to 4-1 on a pretty rush goal. Johansson carried into the Colorado zone along the right wing wall and perfectly fed Kuznetsov at the back door to give the Caps a three-goal lead at 11:03.
Video: WSH@COL: Kuznetsov bangs home the feed from Johansson
The Capitals were buzzing for more offense in Colorado ice when they lost control of the puck along the left wing half wall. Colorado center Mikhail Grigorenko carried it into Washington ice on a two-on-one rush, and he fed Matt Nieto at the back post. Nieto chipped it past Grubauer at 13:50 of the second to make it a 4-2 game.
"The second period, we played the way we are capable of playing," says Trotz. "We played with structure, we played with a lot of detail. I thought we half-iced them for a good part. We drew some penalties, and because of that we scored a power-play goal."
Video: Trotz talks after a 5-3 win in Colorado
Early in the third, the Avs scored a goal similar to their second one to close within one of the Capitals. Washington's fourth line was in the midst of an offensive zone shift when the Avs gained control of the puck and broke out on an odd-man rush. MacKinnon carried up the gut and beat Grubauer with a top shelf backhander at 4:29 of the third.
Colorado kept coming at the Caps with speed in the third, and Washington was white-knuckling its way through the final frame. The Avs had a power play opportunity in the immediate aftermath of MacKinnon's goal, but Washington's penalty killing outfit kept the Avs at bay, preserving the Caps' one-goal lead into the latter stages of the game.
Grubauer was also at the top of his game, making some key stops as the Avs swarmed the Caps' net in the third. For the first time in 15 games, the Avalanche was able to muster as many as 30 shots in a game.
Colorado seemed to be on the verge of tying the game on a few occasions as time wound down, but the Caps were finally able to relieve the pressure with a Lars Eller empty-netter from the Washington blueline with 1:22 remaining.
Video: WSH@COL: Eller seals win with empty-net goal
"They're not an easy team to play against, despite what their record shows," says Eller. "They've got a lot of power up front. MacKinnon was doing everything by himself.
"They're a difficult team to play against. Maybe it wasn't our best game over 60 minutes; we got a little casual at times. But you can't be at your best every game, and it was still a strength to come out of here with two points."
Video: Capitals talk after a 5-3 win against the Avalanche
Washington finished off its 14th set of back-to-back games with its fourth sweep in such circumstances.
They don't ask how, they ask how many. And on this night in Denver, the Caps managed to fight off the Avalanche, and they picked up two more critical points in their quest for the Metropolitan Division crown.