The Washington Capitals’ 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night at Vertizon Center lifted them into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. But it put Capitals players and coaches at odds with the mantra they have repeated since training camp: Wins no longer matter as much as the method that’s used to obtain them.
It was far from their sharpest performance of the season. The Capitals beat the Sabres after coughing up a two-goal lead, rallying from numerous one-goal deficits and playing without the defensive fortitude that gave them the newfound reputation as one of the stingiest teams in the league.
“I’m more concerned with the process of how we played and everything,” said Coach Bruce Boudreau after he was reminded that the Capitals, with 103 points, moved a point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who play Sunday. “I thought it was way too close to looking like last year. So we’ve got to buckle down a little bit.”
It was a strange game between the Capitals and the Sabres, a potential first-round playoff opponent in seventh place in the conference standings with 88 points. There were no penalties until the final 13 minutes of regulation, flurries of goals at the beginning and end of the contest and multiple tallies that were scored off redirections into a player’s own net — including the game-winner.
Three minutes 19 seconds into overtime, Alex Ovechkin’s attempted pass went off the stick of Buffalo’s Jason Pominville, then off the skate of Buffalo defenseman Andrej Sekera and into the net for the game-winner. Ovechkin, who was credited with his league-leading 11th game-winner, didn’t mind as he danced his way to center ice.
“It’s always nice when you score the overtime goal,” Ovechkin said. “I had a pretty good chance today to score goal, but I missed the net and the goalie played well. But it’s nice to score.”
The Capitals’ move to the top of the standings for the first time since Dec. 3 — a day after a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars that began an eight-game losing streak — was also tempered by losing a defenseman to injury for the third straight game. Tyler Sloan left Saturday’s contest late in the second period, missing the game’s final 22 minutes. Boudreau said Sloan “got his bell rung” and is day-to-day, but his absence adds to a growing number of injuries on the blue line. Washington entered Saturday’s game without Mike Green (concussion), Tom Poti (groin), Dennis Wideman (leg hematoma and compartment syndrome) and John Erskine (undisclosed injury).
Washington got off to a fast start, jumping out to a 2-0 lead against the Sabres and goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who started in place of Ryan Miller (upper-body injury), less than five minutes into the first period. Mike Knuble gave the Capitals an initial lead 37 seconds in with a rebound shot after a two-on-one rush with John Carlson. The Capitals’ second line then created a flurry of chances and increased the advantage when a shot by Nicklas Backstrom trickled past Enroth (30 saves) and Alexander Semin was able to bat the puck over the goal line.
Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff opted to use his timeout, with the Capitals out-shooting the Sabres 7-1. Buffalo responded, cutting its deficit in half less than two minutes after Semin’s goal. Thomas Vanek, positioned directly in front of the net, redirected a shot by Brad Boyes past Michal Neuvirth (34 saves).
With 9:28 gone in the opening frame, the Sabres tied the game at 2 when a shot by Drew Stafford bounced past Neuvirth, possibly after being redirected by one of the Capitals.
The stalemate lasted until deep in the third period when Paul Gaustad gave Buffalo its first lead of the game, 3-2, at 12:35. Knuble deflected a shot by Brooks Laich on a power play to knot the score at 3 at 14:18. But little more than two minutes later, a rebound went off Carlson’s skate and into the Capitals’ net to give the Sabres a lead once more. Then it was Jason Arnott’s turn to tie things up at 4-4, once again on the power play, with 51.3 seconds remaining in regulation.
“You can say what you want about the quality of the game at times, but it was fun,” Knuble said. “It was a fun one for the players; both teams couldn’t hold each other back. It’s going to happen like that every once in a while. Of course you’d like to tighten up a bit, but I thought it was a fun hockey game. Sometimes you have those, you just take it and move on.”
Capitals notes: Washington recalled defenseman Sean Collins from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears on Saturday and he played 14:07 against Buffalo. Collins may remain with Washington should Sloan miss any time. Erskine, is expected to play in Toronto on Tuesday.