By Bill Sands
John Carlson gave the Caps a 2-1 lead late in the second, Brett Connolly scored off a nice feed from Madison Bowey, and Matt Niskanen added a late tally as Washington rode a strong offensive performance from the blue line in a solid 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. The defense combined for four points on the night and got help from Braden Holtby, who bounced back after a rough outing against the Islanders to help Washington start a stretch of non-conference games off on the right foot.
Jakub Vrana opened the scoring a little over five minutes into the game when Evgeny Kuznetsov tore through the middle of the ice, drawing four Avalanche defenders and then feathering a soft pass to a streaking Vrana, who took the open space and roofed it over goalie Semyon Varlamov’s shoulder on the short side. Colin Wilson answered for Colorado early in the second, when he took advantage of a loose puck in the slot, deked around Holtby, and then shoveled a backhander into the net. The goaltenders took over the show for most of the period, with Varlamov making a good save on Connolly in the slot and Holtby denying Wilson on a breakaway.
The defensive struggle opened up with just more than two minutes to go, when Tom Wilson continued his run of good play by driving wide with speed and putting the puck towards the net, looking for Alex Ovechkin at the far post. The pass was knocked away by defender Tyson Barrie, who made an ill-advised clear up the middle of the ice, which landed right on the stick of Carlson at the point. With no one in front of him, Carlson strolled in and ripped a slap shot from between the circles that beat Varlamov over his glove.
Washington added to its lead on a delayed penalty with 14:45 remaining in the third. With Holtby on the bench for the extra attacker, Washington set up in the Colorado zone and worked the puck around. Peeling out of the corner, Bowey fooled Varlamov with a head fake and snapped a cross-ice pass to Connolly, who unloaded a one-timer from Alex Ovechkin’s usual spot over Varlamov’s pad and into the net.
Colorado responded well, however, and repeatedly hemmed the Caps in their own zone with sequences of sustained pressure that forced Holtby to make several tough saves. Washington weathered the storm and got the insurance marker when Andre Burakovsky won a battle along the boards and got the puck to Kuznetsov, who froze Varlamov with a nasty deke and slid the puck to a hard-charging Niskanen. Niskanen made no mistake, and the Caps were up 4-1 with just 3:41 to play. Tyson Jost and Devante Smith-Pelley swapped late goals, but the game was already out of hand at that point.
The win kicks off a stretch of Western Conference games for the Caps. After a quick trip to Boston on Thursday, the Caps play Anaheim at home on Saturday and then head west for games against the Stars, Coyotes, and Golden Knights before reaching the Christmas break.