A Little Help – It’s perhaps fitting that the Washington Capitals will now need some help from somewhere if they hope to gain a berth in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
By virtue of their 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center on Tuesday, the Caps yielded control of their own destiny as far as the playoff picture is concerned. That means the Caps could win each of their final five games and still see their season come to a close after the April 7 regular season finale against the Rangers in New York.
Washington was unable to help itself on Tuesday in a significantly important game against the Sabres. Buffalo mustered all the offense it would need in the first frame, scoring twice on Washington mistakes while the Caps were unable to capitalize on some strong chances of their own.
Caps goalie Braden Holtby played the puck behind his own goal near the midway mark of the first, attempting to pass to defenseman Jeff Schultz along the goal line. Instead, Buffalo fourth-liner Brad Boyes intercepted and fed Cody McCormick in front. McCormick tucked the puck under Holtby before the Caps goaltender could reset in the crease.
Late in the first, the Caps got caught on a lengthy shift in their own end, unable to clear the puck. Worse, all five skaters drifted toward the left wing wall, leaving Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers all alone on the right point. Tyler Ennis found Myers with a pass, and the defenseman teed up a shot. Holtby stopped that one, but his effort to push the rebound from harm’s way instead put it on the stick of the Sabres’ Drew Stafford. Stafford fired again, and Holtby slowed that one down. But the Buffalo winger was free to reach behind a prone Holtby and tap in the loose change to make it a 2-0 game at 18:05.
“Just a shot from the crease kind of surprised me,” says Holtby of Stafford’s initial shot. “It stopped on my pad. I was expecting it to bounce out quicker, so it kind of stunned me. When I went to reach for it, it was just out of my reach. It went to the guy wide [and then in].”
When Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek scored to make it 3-0 early in the second, Caps coach Dale Hunter pulled Holtby in favor of Michal Neuvirth. Even at that relatively early stage of the contest, Washington faced a daunting uphill task. The Sabres came into the game with a 28-4-4 record in games in which they scored three or more goals, and they also had red-hot Ryan Miller minding the twine at their end of the ice.
The Caps got a little bump from the goalie switch; they closed to within two at 3-1 on an Alexander Semin goal at 5:07 of the second.
The Sabres lost defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a first-period injury, and Buffalo blueliner Andrej Sekara was hobbled in the second period and had the leave the game for a while. Washington had a golden chance to take advantage of Buffalo’s battered blueline when defenseman Robyn Regehr was whistled for hooking at 16:53 of the second, leaving the Sabres with just three healthy defensemen for a two-minute penalty kill.
With a power-play goal, the Caps could have pulled to within one heading into the final frame. Again, the Capitals were unable to help themselves. Instead, a two-goal swing in the wrong direction came about just 39 seconds after Regehr was seated.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was unable to corral a bouncing puck at the Buffalo line, and Sabres captain Jason Pominville was able to gain position and then possession. He skated down the right wing wall deep into the Washington end and then fired a shot through Neuvirth that gave Buffalo a 4-1 lead. Instead of being down one, the Caps were now down three.
“I don’t think we played bad,” says Ovechkin. “We just made bad mistakes in our zone. [On their shorthanded goal] I should play [the puck] with my skate, not my stick, but it happens.”
The Caps kept pouring pucks at Miller, but few of the shots tested him.
“We were going to the net pretty hard,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter. “We had chances, but again [Miller] was on his game. It wasn’t just against us that he’s been on his game, he’s been on his game and that’s what’s got them in the playoff hunt right now because of it. We threw a lot of rubber on him because we had to throw a lot of rubber to get our chances up and unfortunately he was having one of his better games again.”
Washington teed up at least 25 shots in each of the three periods, but frequently missed the net on strong scoring chances and wasn’t able to beat Buffalo defenders to any rebounds that Miller left lying around in front.
Hunter said it best after Monday’s practice: “You’re anticipating a great game. Both teams are going to come out and battle. Whoever executes the best is going to win this game.”
Both teams did come out and battle. There was no faulting the Caps’ effort. It was Washington’s execution that was lacking, while Buffalo’s was not.
The Capitals now trail the Sabres by two points for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference standings.
No Answer – The Caps’ first three meetings against the Sabres this season all came in the span of 35 days in November and December. Buffalo routed the Caps in the two games played in Western New York, while Washington won the Dec. 30 game between the two teams at Verizon Center.
For each of those games, the Sabres featured a top line of Vanek, Derek Roy and Pominville. Washington did a good job of limiting that threesome in those three games, allowing just two goals (both to Pominville) and surrendering just one at even strength.
The late-season incarnation of the Sabres is deeper and deadlier offensively. They’ve got Roy playing on one line, Vanek on another, and Buffalo’s hottest trio – and one of the hottest in the league – has been the Marcus Foligno, Ennis and Stafford group.
That Ennis-centered line accounted for two goals and four points tonight, giving it a combined total of 17 goals and 38 points in its last nine games.
History In The Making? – Buffalo was in 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings on the morning of Feb. 17, 10 points out of eighth place. The Sabres have now collected a point in 18 of their last 20 games (14-2-4) to push their way up to the eighth spot.
If Buffalo is able to hold onto a postseason berth, it would become just the second team in NHL history to come from that far behind that late in the season and make the playoffs. The 1993-94 New York Islanders erased a 10-point deficit on Feb. 18 to earn the eighth spot.
Short Stuff – Pominville’s shorthanded goal was the 10th surrendered by the Capitals this season.
Faulty Firsts – The Sabres outscored the Capitals by a combined 8-1 in the first period of the four meetings between the two clubs this season.
Making Them Count – McCormick’s goal was his first of the season, and his first in 67 games and more than 13 months, since he scored on Feb. 11, 2011 against the Ottawa Senators.
By The Numbers – Ovechkin led the Caps in ice time with 25:07 … Dennis Wideman led Washington with six shots on net … Ovechkin paced the Caps with four hits … Washington outhit Buffalo 26-13 and won 37 of 60 face-offs (62%).