Buffaloed – Saturday night’s Capitals-Sabres game featured a pair of teams whose weekend got off on the wrong foot in Friday action. The Caps were on the short end of a 6-3 home ice decision at the hands of the New York Rangers while the Sabres took a 5-1 road beating at the hands of the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Friday.
The Caps arrived at their hotel in Buffalo on Friday night just as the Sabres’ game was ending in Ohio, and Buffalo’s list of walking wounded grew by two more as defenseman Robyn Regehr and forward Drew Stafford both were injured against Columbus and were unable to suit up on Saturday against Washington.
With nine regulars missing from their lineup and nine rookies suiting up for the Sabres on Saturday, you’d have figured the Capitals might have an advantage in this one, maybe an advantage they could exploit with a fast start against a makeshift and inexperienced Sabres team.
You’d have figured wrong.
Buffalo took it to the Caps, taking an early 2-0 lead with a fast start of their own and cruising to a 5-1 win over Washington. The Caps seemed mysteriously absent for lengthy stretches of this game, stretches where they might have been able to climb back in it and pull off one of their come-from-behind wins.
“Another team you see that on paper that undermanned a little bit with injuries and whatever,” rues Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “[The Sabres] lost [Friday] pretty good too, so we were in the same boat today. They played a smart game.
“Right now, being challenged to score goals, we’ve got to keep them out of our net. For us to have a chance until we get out of whatever we’re in here, you’ve got to keep pucks out of your own net. That’s five tonight and six [Friday] night. Earlier this week, we were keeping them out, keeping those goals against down. It’s pretty obvious that’s how we’re going to have success.”
Rather than take the play to the undermanned and inexperienced Sabres, the Caps opted for a different tack.
“The plan initially was,” relates Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “we were trying to make it a 2-1 game or a 1-0 game. We’ve had a lot of goals scored against us [lately] and a lot of odd-man rushes. So we didn’t want to jump down the boards and everything else. But they got those first two goals so quick.
“The first period, which was supposed to be, ‘Okay, let’s have a quiet period and maybe we can sneak a goal here and get the lead 1-0.’ Now all of a sudden you’re down 2-0 and then when you’re down 3-1 in the third period, it’s like damn the torpedoes, let’s just go. If you lose 5-1 or 6-1, we’ve got to try to score some goals. You have to change everything up.”
Buffalo built its two-goal lead just past the 15-minute mark of the first period, erasing any thoughts of winning a 2-1 game. But Washington never seemed to get out of its shell.
Buffalo was missing each of its top three penalty-killing defensemen in terms of ice time in Robyn Regehr, Tyler Myers and Mike Weber. The Sabres were also without forward Patrick Kaleta, their second most deployed penalty killing forward.
Rather than taking the game to the Sabres and using their speed, size and skill to draw some calls and put the depleted Sabres in penalty trouble, the Caps sat back. Their first power play came when they were already trailing 2-0, the second when they trailed 3-1, the third when they were down 4-1 and the fourth when Buffalo was up 5-1.
The Caps went more than 12 minutes without a shot on net from the middle of the first frame to early in the second. Their first shot on goal of the second came on a power play, and they launched five unsuccessful shots on that power play.
Washington was credited with just three even-strength shots on goal in the second period, and one of those came on Jason Chimera’s penalty shot goal, the Caps’ lone tally of the night.
In their final three power play chances of the night, the Capitals did not record a single shot on net. They did, however, permit a shorthanded goal, Jochen Hecht’s breakaway tally late in the third that closed out the night’s scoring.
Chimera’s goal drew the Caps within one at 2-1 with more than half the game still ahead. But the fragile Capitals and goaltender Tomas Vokoun surrendered Zack Kassian’s first NHL goal just 27 seconds later to fall two back of Buffalo again. It was a shot that Vokoun would likely say he should have stopped.
“I think it was quite a blow,” says Boudreau of the Kassian goal. “The bench was really buzzing and was pretty into it after that. You could tell. And then when they scored that goal it was quite deflating.”
It shouldn’t have been. The Caps have come back from greater deficits against better clubs, but they weren’t able to muster the effort tonight.
“For whatever reason, if you’re not going to be ready to work one game, you’re not going to win,” says Chimera. “Like I’ve said before, it stems right down from your top guys. Our top guys have got to be our best guys and our goalie has to be the best goalie out there. It goes down from there. It floods down.
“If your top guys are your best guys, you’re going to be good. We’ve got to just work on that. The hard workers have got to be the hard workers. If they’re not out working, then shame on you. Our top guys have got to be our top guys. Everyone’s got to play their roles.”
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were both minus-4 on the night, and Ovechkin attempted just three shots on the night, getting one on net in the first and another in the third and missing on one in the third.
A week earlier, the Capitals faced a Toronto team that had lost four straight at home and was missing seven regulars from its lineup. The Maple Leafs trounced the Caps, 7-1. Washington didn’t learn from the experience; the Sabres had lost three straight at home and were even more undermanned, yet they had little trouble disposing of the Capitals on Saturday.
“The minor leaguers in a short period of time, they overachieve,” says Boudreau of Buffalo’s performance. “I’ve been in that situation many, many times. And you win, because they’re paying so much attention to detail and they’re doing the right things all the time. And the core players realize that’s it’s up to them, too, and they play better than they’re supposed to play and they’re not feeling sorry for themselves. They had last night to feel sorry for themselves on the road.
“So you knew they were going to come out and play hard. Our whole thing was we just learned from this experience last week because we went through the same thing [in the game at Toronto]. Again, I think if we would have scored early or if we had got the first goal, it might have been a different story. But we didn’t.
“Sometimes, we’re not mentally strong. This group has got to learn how to be mentally strong. It hasn’t had a lot of adversity in the last four seasons unless it was in the playoffs. The regular season it seems like it was just a walk in the park. But now we’ve reached in the last 15 games some adversity and some guys are having a hard time with it.”
That begs the question, so I asked it. How do you learn to be mentally strong?
“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe,” says Boudreau. “I’m hoping it’s got to come from within. If I have to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”
After starting the season 9-2, Washington is now 3-7-1 in its last 11 games. The Capitals have allowed 3.27 goals per game, next-to-last in the league. Only Ottawa’s 3.41 mark is worse. Washington is eighth in the Eastern Conference standings, seven points out of first place and five points up from 14th place.
Struggling – In the third period of Friday’s game against the Rangers, Boudreau benched the veteran defensive duo of Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. The two were paired together for the start of Saturday’s game, but they were split up after the first frame.
“Well, they were minus-3 last night and they were on for the first two tonight,” explains Boudreau. “Obviously it wasn’t going to be a success so we had to change something.”
Wideman was a catalyst to the Caps’ 9-2 start this season. He totaled three goals and 10 points and was a plus-8 in the team’s first 11 games. In the 11 games since, he is minus-14 with three assists.
Hamrlik had one goal and was even through 11 games. He is minus-10 in his last 11.
Three Or More – Saturday night’s game marks the eighth straight in which Washington has surrendered three or more goals. It’s the longest such streak the Capitals have endured since they allowed three or more goals in nine straight games from Feb. 25-March 15, 2007.
The Caps went 0-6-3 and were outscored 35-20 in that nine-game stretch more than four years ago.
“It’s no secret that we’re giving up too many goals,” says Laich. “We can’t win when we give up that many goals. When things aren’t going well, strip your game down, start with very basic things, do the little things right and try to build your game back up and get our identity back.”
Black Back-To-Back – With Saturday’s setback to the Sabres, the Caps have dropped a set of back-to-back games without claiming as much as a consolation point for the first time in nearly a year.
Prior to this weekend, the last time the Caps lost contests in regulation time on consecutive nights was last Dec. 11-12 when they lost a 3-2 game to Colorado at home followed by a 7-0 shutout at the hands of the Rangers in New York the next night.
Mission: Possible – Boudreau reunited the defensive duo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson or Saturday’s game, and he had them pitted against Buffalo’s top trio of Hecht, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville whenever possible.
Alzner and Carlson did their job against Buffalo’s top trio, but Pominville did manage to score the Sabres’ second goal at 15:23 of the first. The tally came after Washington had iced the puck with Wideman and Hamrlik on the ice, so Boudreau wasn’t permitted to make a change for the defensive zone face-off. The Sabres won the draw, and Pominville batted home a rebound of a Vanek shot to make it 2-0.
“We did our best to try to stop them and stop anybody that we play against,” says Alzner. “It’s tough especially when you’re he visiting team to get that match-up every single time.
“It’s great playing with Carly and we have good chemistry together, but we’ve got to figure out how to do everything as a whole and we’ve got to as of right now make sure everybody is a shutdown line, forwards and defense. We’ve got to tighten things up because we’re giving up way too many goals right now. Our goals against is above five in the last nine games. That’s terrible. That’s unacceptable for any team.”
There’s No Place Like Home – In Saturday night home games this season, Washington is 3-0-1 with a combined 15-7 positive goal differential.
In four Saturday night road games this season, Washington is now 0-4 with a negative goal differential of 9-24.
Caught Short In The Long Run – The Caps have allowed four shorthanded goals this season, all of them in the team’s last five games. Only New Jersey (five) has surrendered more shorthanded strikes thus far this season.
Washington allowed just five shorthanded goals during the 2010-11 season.
Nine Down – Buffalo took to the ice for Saturday’s game without nine regular players: goaltender Ryan Miller, defensemen Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr and Mike Weber and forwards Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, Brad Boyes, Patrick Kaleta and Cody McCormick.
For the third straight game, the Sabres had a player making his NHL debut. On Wednesday against Boston, defenseman TJ Brennan made his NHL debut and scored a goal, becoming the first Sabres’ blueliner to find the back of the net in his NHL debut since his coach, Lindy Ruff. Ruff turned the trick on Oct. 11, 1979 against the Capitals.
Two nights later, Kassian made his NHL debut for the Sabres in a 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus. He did contribute an assist to the cause on Buffalo’s lone goal of the night before potting his own first NHL tally against Washington on Saturday.
Defenseman Brayden McNabb debuted for Buffalo in Saturday’s game, and he led the Sabres with six hits against Washington while skating 13:42 on the night.
Class of 81 – Both the Capitals and Sabres featured rookie defensemen wearing sweater No. 81 in Friday’s game. Playing in his fourth NHL game, Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov is the first Capital to wear No. 81.
McNabb sports No. 81 for Buffalo; he follows former Caps-killer Miroslav Satan as the second Sabre to sport those digits.
Down On The Farm – After a 3-2 shootout win on the road at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday night, the AHL Hershey Bears returned home to host the Lake Erie Monsters on Saturday night at Giant Center.
The Bears lost a 5-4 heartbreaker.
Leading 3-1 going into the final frame, Hershey gave up three goals in the third, including the game-winner at 19:39, a goal that came just 32 seconds after Graham Mink’s second goal of the game tied it for the Bears. Boyd Kane and Patrick McNeill also scored for Hershey while Dany Sabourin made 27 saves in goal for the Bears.
Hershey drops to third in the AHL’s East Division at 9-5-3-2, four points behind Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Peerless Patriot News Bears beat writer Tim Leone was honored with the AHL’s James Ellery Memorial Award for outstanding beat reporting on Saturday at Giant Center as well.
Down a level, the South Carolina Stingrays hosted the Gwinnett Gladiators at North Charleston Coliseum on Saturday. The Stingrays skated off with a 5-4 win.
Trent Campbell and David deKastrozza each scored twice while Matt Pope added a single marker. Philipp Grubauer made 16 saves to run his record to 9-1-0-1 in his first pro season.
The Stingrays host Greenville on Sunday. South Carolina moved into a first-place tie with Gwinnett in the ECHL’s South Division by virtue of Saturday’s win.
By The Numbers – Carlson’s 22:53 in ice time led the Caps … Knuble’s four shots on goal led the way … Laich, Alzner and Troy Brouwer led Washington with four hits each … Wideman paced the Caps with three blocked shots.