DENVER — Before Nathan MacKinnon even released the shot that would give him his third goal of the night, a fan in the front row of Ball Arena — wearing the jersey of the player who tormented the Washington Capitals throughout the game — whipped off his hat and was ready to fling it over the glass.
It was that inevitable for MacKinnon and his Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night; the fan’s hat was on the ice before the red light went on behind Washington goalie Charlie Lindgren. MacKinnon’s four-goal game, which brought him to 49 points in 24 home games this season, powered the Avalanche to a nearly seamless 6-2 victory against the floundering Capitals.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” winger Tom Wilson said. “It’s one of those times where everyone’s got to come together and dig deep. There’s going to be tough points throughout the season where your character has to come through and get you out of it. The next game is huge. We’ve got to find a way to get wins back in the column.”
Going into Colorado on a back-to-back to face the Avalanche, which hadn’t played since Saturday, was one of the most challenging propositions on the Capitals’ schedule — and they knew it.
“Tomorrow is probably as difficult as the test gets,” Coach Spencer Carbery said after Tuesday’s loss to the Wild. “But that’s where we have to prove that we belong and we’re capable of playing past the regular season.”
For the first 15 minutes, Washington was in position to pass the test. The Capitals were lifted by the adrenaline that comes with playing a second game in as many nights, and Colorado recorded just one shot on goal in the first 10 minutes. But it was evident that fatigue and the impact of playing at altitude would set in for the Capitals at some point, and that their inability to capitalize on their early chances would loom large.
Cale Makar scored shorthanded with just 37 seconds left in the first period, sending Washington into intermission facing a deficit after out-skating the Avalanche for much of the frame.
MacKinnon, who set an Avalanche record for consecutive home games with a point at 24 and counting, threatened in the first period, then proceeded to take the game over in the second period. He needed just 6:37 to produce a natural hat trick and send the Capitals reeling.
The first two goals came on nearly identical power-play tallies. On the first goal, MacKinnon slid to the bottom of the right faceoff circle and one-timed a seam pass from Mikko Rantanen over Lindgren as he tried to slide across the crease. On the second, Makar found MacKinnon slightly higher in the circle for another one-timer that beat Lindgren over the glove.
On the third, Rantanen and MacKinnon combined for a two-on-one rush that began when Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin couldn’t chase down a puck before it left the offensive zone. Rantanen skated onto the puck and fed it over to MacKinnon as he accelerated up the wing. MacKinnon added a showman’s touch to his hat trick goal, skating down the slot and tucking a backhander up under the bar and over a sprawling Lindgren.
“The difference in the game is three of the best players on the planet,” Carbery said, referring to MacKinnon, Rantanen and Makar.
Rantanen picked up his fourth point of the night with a goal at 10:20 of the third and completed a five-point game on MacKinnon’s fourth goal with 3:46 left to play. Strome scored twice in the third period to keep the Capitals from being shut out for the sixth time this season — and the second time in the past three games.
Washington concludes its road trip in Dallas on Saturday, looking to avoid taking its skid into the all-star break.
“No one wants to go into all-star break losing four in a row,” Strome said. “Obviously, we put ourselves in a tough spot. … We didn’t do enough for Chuckie tonight. He’s been our backbone all year and been the reason we’ve won a ton of games. We didn’t do enough to help him tonight. They’ve got MacKinnon coming down Main Street, two-on-ones, breakaways. When you leave your goalie like that, it’s not good.”