BUFFALO — The NHL’s holiday break ended Monday when games resumed around the league, but apparently no one told the Washington Capitals.
Facing the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center after a two-day break, the Capitals looked uninspired, rarely sustained possession and didn’t offer much response when challenged to win a battle for the puck in the opening 20 minutes.
Turns out the four-goal lead the Sabres accumulated in the first period would be all they needed to hand Washington a decisive, demoralizing 4-2 loss.
It was a defeat that highlighted what is becoming a bad habit of sluggish starts for the Capitals, who have given up the first goal in eight of their last 11 road games. Against the Sabres, who snapped a three-game losing streak with points from 10 players, the ditch Washington dug itself proved too big to climb out of.
“Those are habits that need to be broken if you want to be successful and I don’t know how long it takes before enough is enough,” Karl Alzner said of the slow starts. “We’ve got to keep watching the tape and hopefully it’s one of those things that clicks and everyone starts to figure it out because you don’t want to go through an entire season winning and losing like this. It’s not very fun.”
Things went poorly immediately after the opening faceoff. Only nine seconds into the game, Roman Hamrlik backhanded a puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty that would yield a power-play goal by Sabres captain Jason Pominville. The Capitals spent the morning talking about how a fast start would be crucial after the time off, but they failed to heed their own advice.
Buffalo went up 2-0 after Matt Ellis out-maneuvered Alzner and Dmitry Orlov for the puck after Matt Hendricks won a faceoff in the defensive zone. The Sabres’ winger weaved his way through the defensemen for a backhanded tally with 3 minutes 10 seconds gone in the first.
The Sabres’ success continued to snowball as Christian Ehrhoff’s blast from the point increased the lead to 3-0. It was the sixth and final shot Michal Neuvirth would face as the second-year goaltender, making his fifth consecutive start, was pulled just 11:15 into the game.
“Less than 10 seconds into the game we’re in the penalty box and they capitalized on it,” Hendricks said. “The common theme we saw in New Jersey and tonight is we can put pressure on when we decide to do it. I don’t think we came out with that mentality or that urgent desire to do those little things, getting pucks deep [and] finishing checks. Stuff that’s going to make their D turn the puck over.”
Not even the change in goal would jostle Washington out of its stagnant state that period. The Capitals were caught flat-footed repeatedly as Buffalo continued to take chances. With Alex Ovechkin in the box for tripping, the Sabres made it 4-0.
Brad Boyes gained possession along the boards and out-worked four Capitals as he carried the puck to the slot before dishing it to Brayden McNabb, who scored his first NHL goal 14:14 into the first. It was also the first shot that Tomas Vokoun faced in his first game action since Dec. 13.
“I didn’t see the shot, it hit me in the armpit and went in,” said Vokoun, who finished with 16 saves. “It’s just nice to get on the ice but it’s not a very good atmosphere right now.”
While the Capitals said they remained optimistic after the horrid first period, the damage was done. Washington would continue to allow chances — such as a three-on-one in the opening minute of the second — but the Sabres rang shots off the post and Vokoun would also come up big to prevent additional goals from piling on.
Finally Washington managed quality shots and scoring chances against Ryan Miller beginning in the second, but the all-star netminder was comfortable long before they tested his sharpness. Hendricks tipped a puck past Miller with 17 seconds remaining in the middle frame, putting the Capitals on the board and recording his first goal of the season, but it did little to help pull the team out of its quagmire.
Ovechkin’s power-play goal midway through the third added another to make it 4-2, but the final score was deceiving because the game was out of reach long before then.
“I think we have probably worst start in this year, get penalty, they score good goal. After that, they score another one and another one,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know what happened but that kind of goals kill us and kill your mentality.
Capitals notes: Mathieu Perreault stayed in a Buffalo-area hospital for observation after he speared himself in the gut during a collision with Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. The center is expected to rejoin the team in Washington on Tuesday, according to a team spokesman. Perreault played three shifts and even was whistled for a charging penalty after apparently suffering the injury. . . . Mike Green missed a 20th consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. He did not make the trip to Buffalo.