By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006
The only thing more unexpected than the Washington Capitals' 7-4 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres last night at Verizon Center was the sight of Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals' star player, getting ejected.
Ovechkin, a player as likable as he is talented, was sent off 4 minutes 52 seconds into the second period after he checked Daniel Briere, the Sabres' high-scoring captain, into the side boards from behind. Briere, who had dumped the puck and was heading for the bench for a line change, hit the boards headfirst, sending his helmet flying.
"He just turn around, and I don't have time to stop," said Ovechkin, who scored the Capitals' third goal of the opening eight minutes. "I'm not trying to give not clean kind of hit. It's a game; that happens."
Ovechkin received five minutes for fighting, five for boarding and a game misconduct. Briere, meantime, returned for his next shift.
"There should be some sort of disciplinary action for that," Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff said. "We don't need that in the game. He's fortunate. He's sore. He's got a little bit of a neck strain and is going to be okay. But it looked very dangerous."
It's unclear whether Ovechkin will face further punishment, but the league's rules do allow for a review by the commissioner. The referees declined to comment.
The ejection -- and an injury to Richard Zednik later -- overshadowed an otherwise prosperous night for the Capitals. Matt Pettinger scored twice and Olie Kolzig made 26 saves to lift them to their third straight victory. The Sabres, meantime, lost in regulation for only the fourth time.
The Capitals also became the first team this season to chase opposing goaltenders in three straight contests. Buffalo's Ryan Miller, who surrendered three goals on nine shots, was replaced by Martin Biron (15 saves).
Zednik went down late in the second period because of a groin injury. The oft-injured right wing landed awkwardly as he was hit by Dmitri Kalinin, was helped off the ice and did not return. He is day-to-day.
Without Ovechkin and then Zednik, the Sabres' considerable skill and speed began to take its toll on the Capitals. Another key forward for Washington, Dainius Zubrus, missed the game because of flulike symptoms.
Chris Drury scored on a five-on-three power play at 9:46 of the second period to trim Buffalo's deficit to 5-2. Then, moments after Zednik came off, Thomas Vanek beat Kolzig with 28 seconds left to make it 5-3 at the second intermission.
"It was huge," Pettinger said. "We made it interesting, yet again. But the bottom line is we won the hockey game. That's three big, big wins over three very good hockey teams."
The Capitals dominated the opening 20 minutes, outshooting the Sabres 15-7, but more important, outscoring them 4-1.
Zednik's breakaway goal 2:01 in put the Capitals on the scoreboard. He snagged a loose puck his own zone, then used his speed to burn Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell to the Sabres' net.
Before the Sabres could regroup, Capitals defenseman Bryan Muir made it 2-0, ripping a slap shot from just inside the blue line past Miller.
Ovechkin's 17th goal made it 3-0 at 7:45. He stripped the puck from Dmitri Afinogenov in the Capitals' end, then raced the length of the ice and beat Miller high. It was the last shot Miller faced.
Derek Roy was credited with the Sabres' only goal of the period at 15:09, when Kolzig inadvertently knocked it in with glove as he attempted to freeze the puck in the crease. But Ben Clymer restored the Capitals' three-goal cushion less than a minute later.
The teams racked up 79 minutes in penalties for the Ovechkin-Briere incident, which also led to the ejection of Paul Gaustad, who assaulted Ovechkin in the corner as Briere lay face down on the ice. Adam Mair also was ejected, for instigating a fight with Muir.
NHL Rule 42.5 says: "When a major penalty is imposed this rule for a foul resulting in an injury to the face or head of an opponent, a game misconduct shall be imposed." Ovechkin also receives an automatic fine of $100 and could be subject to "supplementary discipline" from commissioner, the rule book says.
Less than three minutes after the controversial hit and the fracas, Pettinger scored to extend the lead to 5-1. His second goal, at 9:52 of the third period, made it 6-3.
Buffalo's Drew Stafford made it 6-4 at 12:14, but Kolzig and an empty-net goal by Capitals defenseman John Erskine clinched it.
Capitals Notes: Hundreds, if not thousands, of Sabres fans made their presence known among the crowd of 17,162 with chants of "Let's go Buff-a-lo!" filling the building during warmups. Signs supporting the Sabres were posted along the glass.