Nearly every time the Washington Capitals had the puck, they tried to skate through the Colorado defense. And every time, the Avalanche were determined to clog up the middle of the ice and not let them.
The end result was not pretty for the Caps. Colorado frustrated Washington’s skill players and converted turnovers into goals in a 4-1 victory Friday night at sold-out Verizon Center.
“I don’t know what happened - I think this was our worst game of the year,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That’s not good. We are playing at home with a full crowd in the arena, and it is no good. We have to do better.”
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “We just didn’t have it. We had nothing. We were horrible.”
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak and continued a disturbing trend of the team not playing well against inferior competition - particularly in this building against underdogs from the Western Conference.
Washington is 23-5-1 at home this season, but four of those losses have been to Colorado, Columbus, Edmonton and Los Angeles - all teams that have at least 13 fewer points than the Caps. Toss in losses at Columbus, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Phoenix and it is clear the Caps have not enjoyed games against less successful teams from the West.
“We have to play hard against every team,” goalie Jose Theodore said. “We can’t start picking our opponents. We have to play the same way every game, and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Ryan Smyth put the Avalanche on the board midway through the opening period. Smyth’s first three attempts at a wraparound stuff from behind the net were denied by Theodore, but his fourth whack was successful at 10:27. Theodore protested immediately because he thought he had the puck trapped up against the post with his skate, but the officials disagreed and allowed the goal.
It was a sluggish first period for the Caps, though Backstrom pulled them even 14.6 seconds before the intermission. Eric Fehr started the rush with an outlet to Tomas Fleischmann, whose pass from the right wall hit a trailing Backstrom near the left circle.
Avalanche goaltender Andrew Raycroft couldn’t slide over in time, and Backstrom calmly snapped a shot off the inside of the left post and in for his 15th goal of the season. The sophomore center has 62 points, 12th-most in the NHL. Last season, Backstrom finished with 14 goals and 69 points, which was enough to earn second place in the Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year.
Still, for much of the night the typically high-flying Caps were grounded by Colorado’s defensive approach.
“We had a game plan, and we didn’t really go by it too much,” Boudreau said. “We kept trying to force the puck through the middle, and when you do that you get frustrated and start trying to do individual stuff.”
Colorado’s Adam Foote had the lone goal of the middle period. Milan Hejduk skated the puck around the net behind Theodore to the goalie’s left and connected with Foote, who pinched in from the left point and one-timed the pass for his first goal since Oct. 6, 2007 - a span of 105 games for the veteran defenseman.
Tyler Arnason made it 3-1 after he and Marek Svatos forced the puck away from Donald Brashear in the Caps’ end to create a quick two-on-one early in the third. Wojtek Wolski gave the Avalanche a three-goal advantage 12:36 into the final period when he and Smyth hooked up on another odd-man break.
“They had a lot of guys sitting back, and we just kept trying to force the issue,” right wing Eric Fehr said. “We had a couple of chances when it was 2-1 for Colorado. We had a couple open nets and couldn’t hit it, and after that Colorado took the momentum.”
Theodore was playing the second of back-to-back games against former teams. Two days after besting the team that drafted him (the Montreal Canadiens), he yielded four goals on 25 shots against the team he most recently played for before joining the Capitals this offseason with a two-year, $9 million contract.
“It was my former team and I came ready to play,” Theodore said, “but we didn’t have the result that we wanted.”