BUFFALO — The Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres entered Saturday night’s game both four points out of playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but with vastly different outlooks on that predicament. One team had publicly said it intended to sell off assets before the NHL trade deadline on April 3 and look to the future. The other has stressed it remains focused on reaching the postseason.
After 40 minutes, it was tough to tell which was which.
The Capitals team with a stated desire to make the playoffs finally arrived in the third period, overcoming a two-goal deficit with goals from Mike Green and Troy Brouwer to force overtime. Matt Hendricks and Alex Ovechkin scored in the shootout to secure a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Sabres, earning two points that allowed Washington to close the gap on those ahead of it in the standings.
“We can’t start like that if we want to continue to fight for the playoffs,” said Ovechkin, who extended his point streak to seven games with a power play goal. “They score right away almost first shot on net, it’s good for us they was a little bit relax after they score goals and give us time to come back. We needed it.”
The win puts the Capitals two points back of the eighth-place New York Rangers and five behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Southeast Division lead, but with two games in hand. Both the Jets and Rangers lost their own games Saturday allowing Washington to creep closer.
Taking advantage of that opportunity to advance in the Eastern Conference standings took a full 65 minutes as the Capitals worked to erase arguably their ugliest start of the season.
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead 3 minutes 1 second into the game with a shot from the left circle after John Carlson and Brouwer failed to keep control of the puck along the boards. Ehrhoff snatched the puck away, skated toward the net and rifled a shot over the glove of Braden Holtby, who finished with 20 saves.
While Buffalo wouldn’t add to its advantage in the first, the Capitals struggled mightily to maintain possession throughout the opening frame. Washington couldn’t break out cleanly from its own zone or generate sustained offensive zone time.
“I was shocked. That’s probably the worst period of hockey I've seen in a while from us,” Karl Alzner said of the hapless start. “We were just trying to be really fancy the effort level wasn’t there. It was a bad first period.”
Seventy-nine seconds into the second period, Ville Leino scored on a rebound from a Tyler Ennis shot to put the Sabres up 2-0. Ovechkin would cut the deficit to 2-1 shortly after, scoring on a laser of a wrist shot on a power play to make it 2-1 with 2:21 gone in the middle stanza. Ovechkin’s tally, which marked his seventh goal and 11th point in the past seven games, sparked the Capitals briefly but when Jack Hillen was whistled for holding Buffalo re-established the two-goal lead.
A point shot by Tyler Myers was redirected in front by Marcus Foligno and managed to trickle through Holtby’s legs. Leino swatted the loose puck into the net to make it 3-1 Sabres with 10:16 gone in the second. The Capitals had one more period of play in Buffalo to try and make something out of the start to this three-game road trip and Coach Adam Oates let them know that their lot Saturday night was self-inflicted.
“We got a little bit of [crap] from Oatesy,” Green said of the message heading into the third. “We didn’t play well at the start of the game and he addressed what we needed to do in the third period — we went out and did it. It was a matter of confidence, character and pulling through.”
Said Oates: “We had opportunities to make good decisions and make plays and we didn’t. It happens at times it does but you’ve still got to remind the guys that the reason we’re behind is because of us, not so much what they did. You’ve got to be able to play. Nobody’s perfect. It was a little bit of a wakeup call, make sure that we bounce back.”
Brouwer got things rolling 2:43 into the third when beat backup Sabres netminder Jhonas Enroth (35 saves) blocker side for a shorthanded goal that made it 3-2.
All of a sudden the Capitals were up on the bench, renewed with confidence that they could find a way to come back.
From there, Washington dominated the play capitalizing on Buffalo turnovers and maintaining strong support and puck possession. The Capitals took up residence in the offensive zone and peppered Enroth with shots, they had several near misses on the tying goal including a shot by Green with 6:50 gone in the third that rung off the post.
With 39.2 seconds remaining in regulation, Green knocked another shot off the left post but this time it clanked off the post and into the open net to tie the game at 3-3 and propel the Capitals to overtime.
“We know the cards are still in our hands,” Matt Hendricks said. “We can still make the playoffs just by winning our games, that’s the mood of the group. That’s what we have to remember.”
Capitals note: Defenseman Tomas Kundratek was activated from injured reserve Saturday but did not play in Buffalo. He has missed eight straight games with a sprained right MCL. . . . To make room for Kundratek on the active roster, Eric Fehr was placed on injured reserve with what the team will only describe as an upper-body injury.