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Play of Holtby, special teams, fourth line and Oshie's late goal add up to a Washington win, halting a short skid in opener of three-game tour

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

Rocky Mountain High - The Caps started a three-game Western road trip in Denver on Thursday night, facing the hottest team in the Western Conference in the Colorado Avalanche. Washington came into the contest having allowed a dozen goals in its previous two games - both at home - and having yielded an average of four goals a game in its previous seven contests.

The Avs brought a five-game winning streak into Thursday's game, and they came in with eight wins in their previous nine. Colorado had been particularly stingy over that stretch too, outscoring the opposition by a combined 36-17 in its previous nine games.

Colorado jumped out to a 2-0 lead and was on the verge of opening the game up, but Caps goalie Braden Holtby kept the Avs in check the rest of the way and Washington mounted yet another comeback from a multi-goal deficit to stop its short slide with a 3-2 victory. Thursday's win enabled the Caps to even their record at 4-4-0 since their midseason break.

"We are in the middle of a process here and going through a rough patch," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "It's something that we've talked about some areas where we can get better and simplifying our game at different times, and making sure that we're taking care of our own end first. And against this type of team that is so dynamic offensively, you know you're going to give up some chances, it's just that you've got to keep them to a somewhat of a minimum. And I thought we did a better job of that as the second and third went on.

"But ultimately, it was our players' commitment that they made tonight, and overall just sticking together again through adversity, which is something I've been talking a lot with them about. Missing a guy like [Evgeny] Kuznetsov, we've got people that stepped up tonight and special teams and Braden Holtby were the deciders."

Video: Reirden Postgame | February 13

The Caps killed off a 60-second two-man advantage late in the second to stay within a goal of Colorado, Tom Wilson tied it up at 2-2 with a power-play goal with 7:12 remaining, and T.J. Oshie scored the game-winner, tipping home a Nick Jensen right point drive with just 2:04 remaining.

"The special teams can obviously be a huge momentum swing either way," says Wilson, "[penalty kill and] power play. It's good to execute on both of those fronts. Those can change the game, and they helped us out tonight for sure."

Holting The Fort - The first time he faced the Avs this year - on Oct. 14 in Washington -- Holtby allowed three goals on as many shots, and was pulled in favor of rookie Ilya Samsonov. The Caps eventually lost that game 6-3, with Samsonov absorbing the loss in the books.

Colorado took a 1-0 lead at 2:54 of the first when ex-Caps winger Andre Burakovsky bit the hand that once fed him, and the Avs went up 2-0 on a Mikko Rantanen power-play goal late in the first. The Avs had to come 200 feet to score both of those goals, and although the Caps were better at defending in their own end than they've been recently, Holtby still had to come up with some huge stops.

"I thought he was great," says Caps winger Garnet Hathaway of Holtby's game. "We've let him down a lot lately, so it's nice to see us work a little hard, protect him a little bit more and he played the way we know he can."

He thwarted Matt Calvert's breakaway bid in the first and was aggressive at coming out to challenge Joonas Donskoi and Nathan MacKinnon early in the second, saves that kept the Caps within striking distance while preventing Colorado from blowing the game open. Holtby frustrated MacKinnon all night; the Avs' leading scorer accounted for nine of his teams 34 shots on net.

Holtby finished the night with 32 saves and his 21st win, and the Caps-heavy crowd in Denver could be heard chanting his name after some of those denials.

Video: Postgame | February 13

"You never know when it's going to turn around like that," says Holtby. "If you just keep fighting for some sort of save to turn things around.

"The first [period] was more of a continuation from the last little bit, but you could see we're fighting to get past that. I thought in the second we came out and we got back to our identity."

Raw Power - The Capitals' power play unit had scored in eight of the team's prior 11 games going into Thursday's game with the Avs, but it had not managed a multi-goal game since a Jan. 3 win over the Hurricanes in Carolina.

Each of the Caps' first two goals on Thursday came with the extra man. Nicklas Backstrom converted a Jakub Vrana feed from the half wall, scoring a back-door goal at 11:37 of the second to cut the Colorado lead to 2-1. Wilson's goal came on a deflection of a John Carlson shot in the third.

Washington was 2-for-5 with the extra man in the game, but even when the power play did not score, it was dangerous. The Caps spent a lot of time in zone, they generated looks and chances, and recoveries and entries were good. They finished with 11 shots on net in 8:40 worth of extra-man time, a much better rate than they've been accustomed to recently.

Carry Fourth - The Caps' fourth line of Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Hathaway was instrumental in mounting Washington's third period comeback. They took four shifts in the third - all of them notable - and helped swing the twin tides of possession and territory to Washington's side in the third.

Although the Caps were down a goal for the first 12-plus minutes of the third and are not always deployed as frequently when Washington is trying to rally late in games, Reirden kept going back to them and they kept delivering high energy shifts in the offensive zone.

"I think my line found our game in the third," says Hathaway. "I think when we get on the puck and we forecheck like we did in the third, you saw we had a couple chances. We kept the puck in, the [defensemen] at the point made some great plays, and we start throwing the puck to the net and recovering it. I think that's a period where we want to build some energy for the rest of the team, and it's great to see them get out there and score a couple."

By night's end, none of the trio had skated more than Dowd's 8:44. But the unit combined for four shots on net, six hits and it won 10 of a dozen draws during the game. Dowd won nine of 11 face-offs (82 percent), which was crucial for the Caps on a night when the rest of the crew combined to win only 18 of 59 (31 percent) and were often chasing the puck.

Turning Point - With Washington down 2-1 late in the second, the Caps ran into some serious penalty killing peril. Dowd and Lars Eller were both in the penalty box, giving Colorado a full minute's worth of time with the two-man advantage, and leaving Washington without its top two penalty killing pivots.

Wilson was deployed to take the draw - one of only two he took in the game - and he won it, effectively shaving away 20 seconds or so of the minute the Avs had with which to work. Two of Holtby's stops on MacKinnon followed before Dowd returned to make it a 4-on-5 kill.

"I just wanted to win it, that's all," says Wilson of the face-off. "Just kind of bear down and be strong. I missed the first one, and [the puck] was still there, so I snapped it back. Those are little plays, and then Johnny [Carlson] makes a good clear on his backhand.

"We did what it took to get the plays done, and to get the win in a gritty kind of road win."

Rally Caps - Thursday's win marks the eighth time this season that Washington has rallied from a deficit of two or more goals to win. That's the second most in a single season in franchise history; the 2009-10 Presidents' Trophy-winning team had nine such games.

The 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers hold the all-time league mark with a dozen comeback wins from two or more goals down. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup that season.

By The Numbers - Carlson led the Caps with 26:34 in ice time … Alex Ovechkin led Washington with seven shots on net and 16 shot attempts … Radko Gudas and Dmitry Orlov each had four hits to pace the Caps … Wilson led Washington with three blocked shots … Vrana recorded his 24th assist on Backstrom's goal, a single-season best. Vrana has 47 points this season, matching his career high established in 2018-19.

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