Buffalo, NY - Christmas is over, but the Washington Capitals were in town Monday night hoping to leave a lump of coal in each of the Buffalo Sabres‘ stockings (hung over the fireplace in the Sabres’ new multi-million dollar dressing room, perhaps?). The Sabres, losers of three straight, were looking to turn that coal into cool diamonds, in front of a sold-out First Niagara Center crowd. From the drop of the puck, Buffalo’s transition game was too much for the Capitals, in Buffalo’s slump-busting 4-2 victory.
Nine seconds into the game, Washington’s Roman Hamrlik took a delay of game penalty by shooting the puck over the glass in his own end. It took only 41 seconds from there for the Sabres to draw first blood. Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold brought the puck into the Capitals zone, fed a quick pass to a streaking Drew Stafford, whose cross ice pass to Jason Pominville was one-timed behind Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead. The goal, on the power-play, was Pominville’s 12th of the year.
It didn’t take long for the Sabres to add to that lead. At 3:10 of the first, Buffalo’s hard-working plugger Matt Ellis stole the puck off a faceoff inside the Washington end, drove to the net, and beat Neuvirth with a backhand along the ice for his second goal of the season. You could sense, even with only a 2-0 deficit, that the Capitals wanted to be elsewhere on this Monday night after Christmas.
Halfway through the period, with Buffalo dominating play, Sabres’ defenseman Christian Ehrhoff took a drop pass from Jochen Hecht (in his first game back after missing the last six with an ankle injury) just inside the Washington blueline, and let rip with a laser that beat Neuvirth top corner on his blocker side. The Washington goaltender looked somewhat surprised that Ehrhoff’s shot got past him, but couldn’t have been too shocked to see Capitals’ head coach Dale Hunter (yes, Sabres fans, that Dale Hunter) give the shout to back-up goaltender Tomas Vokoun to ready himself to come into the game and replace the shell-shocked Neuvirth.
The goaltending change wasn’t so much poor play between the pipes for the Capitals, as it was Buffalo’s quick breakouts and crisp passing through the neutral zone. “When you can play it quick through the neutral zone, you don’t allow the other team to get into their scheme”, Ruff said. “Most guys flying (through there tonight) made a difference.”
Exactly three minutes later, the rout was on. Brad Boyes, another Sabre playing in his first game since being injured on November 23rd against the Bruins, brought the puck into the Capitals zone, made a nifty inside/outside move, and fed a waiting Brayden McNabb in the high slot. McNabb let a wrist shot go that beat Vokoun on the first shot the replacement Washington goalie faced. The puck appeared to glance off Sabres forward Luke Adam, who was screening Vokoun in front, but McNabb was credited with his first NHL goal and point, and the Sabres led 4-0.
The Sabres scored on four of their first six shots, yet the period ended with Washington holding a 9-8 shots advantage.
The second period started with Buffalo down a man, after Sabres defenseman Mike Weber took a tripping penalty with 44 seconds left in the first. Thirty seconds in, with the Sabres shorthanded, Paul Gaustad ripped a shot past Vokoun, only to see it ring off the post. Washington wasn’t able to sustain much pressure on the Sabres, and Buffalo escaped without giving up a power-play goal.
The Capitals must have been read the riot act by Hunter between the first and second periods, as they were skating much better in the middle stanza, and getting some quality scoring chances against a stellar Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Miller stood tall for most of the period, looking very much in control, swallowing up virtually every Capitals’ shot, and not allowing much in the way of rebounds.
Midway through the period, Sabres’ defenseman Andrej Sekera found a loose puck in front of the Washington goal, walked in all alone, and rang it off the goal post. Buffalo, by coach Lindy Ruff‘s count, hit four posts against the Capitals. Besides Gaustad and Sekera, the Sabres didn’t generate much in the way of scoring chances for much of period two, and it looked like they would take a 4-0 lead into the intermission.
However, with seventeen seconds left in the period, after an ugly scrum in front of the Sabres net which saw almost every Buffalo player on the ice collapse in towards Miller, the Capitals’ Matt Hendricks got a piece of a puck that trickled just inside the goal line past the Sabres’ goalie, for his first of the year, to bring the Capitals to within three.
Buffalo skated into the second intermission with a 4-1 lead, despite being outshot 14-13 to that point.
Halfway through period three, with Patrick Kaleta in the penalty box for the Sabres, Alexander Ovechkin finally awoke from his two-period slumber, and brought the Capitals to within two. Dennis Wideman fed a pass to Ovechkin at the point, and the Washington star held onto the puck for what seemed like an eternity. He took two steps in towards the middle of the ice, waiting for some traffic to develop in front of Miller, and let rip one of those patented Ovechkin wrist shots. Thoroughly screened on the play, Miller had no chance, as the puck found its way into the corner of the net, cutting Buffalo’s lead in half, and seemingly giving Washington life.
It didn’t matter much, however, as Buffalo held on for the 4-2 victory, in a game in which the score was much closer than play indicated.
Boyes (who, along with returnee Hecht, played a strong game), had a chance to ice the game for the Sabres with around six minutes left. The Sabres’ winger found himself all alone, with a wide open net, in front of Vokoun. Boyes took the puck to the backhand and missed the top corner by about five feet. Ruff had a good chuckle after the game recounting Boyes’ open net opportunity but, even in victory, didn’t give the winger a free pass, adding, “That’s one you shake your head at.”
The Sabres’ next game is Wednesday night, in New Jersey, against the Devils.
- Zack Kassian and Jordan Leopold (who also led the Sabres in total ice-time, playing 24:20) led the Sabres with a +2 rating each on the night.
- Ovechkin, held in check most of the evening, finished with a team high 5 shots on goal.
- Winger Derek Whitmore was returned to Rochester prior to the game, while center Paul Szczechura remained with the Sabres, but was a healthy scratch.
- The last time the Sabres had a shooting percentage of at least 50% for a period (first period, 4 goal/8 shots) was December 18, 2009 against the Toronto Maple Leafs (4 goals/8 shots).
- After his victory between the pipes against the Capitals, Miller needs four more wins to equal Dominik Hasek‘s franchise record of 243.
- The Sabres went 31-for-53 on face-offs (58%), with Derek Roy (11-for-17) and Gaustad (7-for-9) leading the way for Buffalo.
- With 37 points, the Sabres now sit 9th in the Eastern Conference, two behind the 8th place Ottawa Senators, and nine out of first place (New York Rangers).
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Topics: Alex Ovechkin, Andrej Sekera, Brad Boyes, Brayden Mcnabb First Nhl Goal, Buffalo Sabres, Christian Ehrhoff, Dale Hunter, Derek Roy, Derek Whitmore, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht, Jordan Leopold, Lindy Ruff, Luke Adam, Matt Ellis, Matt Hendricks, Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad, Paul Sczcechura, Ryan Miller, Washington Capitals, Zack Kassian