Alex Ovechkin pulled back his stick and fired, the Verizon Center crowd seemingly holding its collective breath as the puck navigated its way under goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s armpit and into the net. Washington’s fan base and its power play then exhaled together.
As the Capitals’ power play endured an early-season drought, Coach Barry Trotz wasn’t too concerned, figuring that the potent unit was capable of scoring three in one night to quickly right itself. The man-advantage nearly made Trotz look prophetic, scoring twice in Washington’s 3-0 victory against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night.
“I don’t think we were really thinking about it too much,” T.J. Oshie said. “But it definitely felt good to get one out there. It felt good for [Ovechkin], I’m sure, to get one from his spot over there.”
The Capitals dominated puck possession, outshooting the Avalanche 40-18. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer, making his season debut, recorded his first NHL shutout, but with the puck in Washington’s offensive zone for most of the game, it was a slow night for him.
“He just looked very, very composed all night,” Trotz said. “There wasn’t any jitters or anything like that. I thought he was real, real sharp, and guys were so happy for him.”
The power play, which has been consistently ranked at or near the top of the league for years, started the season in an 0-for-8 drought. The early struggles were especially surprising considering the top unit returned the same five members from last season, and the second unit had only one personnel change.
Ovechkin said the power play had been playing too casually; some sloppiness had plagued it. Zone entries didn’t appear to be the issue, but some passes were just slightly off the mark, bouncing off a skate instead of finding tape. Trotz said the unit was just unlucky in some other instances, generating strong chances but not scoring on them.
“The power play wasn’t bad, but we talked about needing a little bit more execution and a little bit more finish,” Trotz said. “They were sharper, and then they got rewarded. I thought they could’ve scored almost every power play they got tonight.”
The power play had its first opportunity 3:51 into the game, when Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov was called for tripping, and the man-advantage put a whopping five shots on goal. In comparison, Washington had seven shots on goal in five power plays against the New York Islanders on Saturday. One attempt by Justin Williams was stopped by Colorado defenseman Francois Beauchemin’s skate at the goal line.
The Capitals were able to break through on their second try of the game, with 4:16 left in the first period. Ovechkin scored his first goal of the season the way he has scored so many in his career, from his beloved left faceoff circle.
“The first goal was, I think, really important for us mentally,” Ovechkin said. “You can see that when we have power-play opportunities, we have so many chances to score. But we got two, and we’ll take it.”
Eleven minutes 20 seconds into the second period, Colorado’s Jarome Iginla fought Washington’s Tom Wilson, a surprising duel. Iginla was assessed an extra minor penalty for instigating, and the Capitals capitalized 12 seconds into the ensuing power play when Nicklas Backstrom fed Oshie in the slot for a top-shelf wrister that gave Washington a two-goal lead with 8:28 left in the second period.
“I think we were getting some shots on net,” Oshie said. “Our recovery plays were a little more smooth. We didn’t let them chase us around too much; they kind of had to respect us because we got the puck settled down pretty quick. Then after you do that with Nicky on the wall over there, he can break a [penalty kill] down.”
Washington maintained that advantage by allowing Colorado just six shots on goal in the final frame. The Capitals added to their lead when Oshie punched in the rebound from an Ovechkin shot that had ricocheted off Varlamov’s pad with 6:25 to play.
Washington’s first line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ovechkin and Oshie had looked disjointed in the first two games of the season, and Trotz analogized it to being on the same dance floor but not dancing to the same song. The trio, kept off the score sheet for the first two games, met Monday with Trotz to get on the same page.
Just as with the power play, Trotz said he wasn’t concerned. Tuesday night’s performance validated his confidence.
“They were all good,” Trotz said. “I challenged them a little bit to raise the bar a little bit. We’re much better than we showed in the first two games, and let’s sort of just raise the bar and just play to real high standard, so that we can win hockey games and feel good after every game . . . I thought today was closer to the standard that we want to try to keep all of the time.”