By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Given the Washington Capitals' place in the standings, and the number of points they must make up if they are to recover from a brutal start, they can't afford to take off a single shift.
They definitely can't afford to take off several minutes at a time.
But that's exactly what happened at Verizon Center last night, where Buffalo center Tim Connolly scored with 3 minutes 42 seconds remaining to help the Sabres earn a 5-3 victory.
For the Capitals, the mistake-riddled defeat snapped their three-game winning streak and dropped their record to 6-4-1 under interim coach Bruce Boudreau, who was sharply critical of his team's effort and execution.
"The difference in the sense of urgency between their team and our team was quite amazing tonight," Boudreau said. "It's like they said, 'We've got 29 points and if they win they are only one behind us and we're too good for that.' "
Boudreau and his players agreed that two points in the standings were there for the taking. The Capitals even had a goal gifted to them from the boards.
But they couldn't overcome a miscue by goaltender Olie Kolzig and an uneven effort from everyone else.
The winner was scored by Connolly, who had gotten loose in the slot between defensemen Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz. Connolly fired in a rebound to put the Sabres ahead for good, 4-3.
Kolzig went to the bench with 1:41 left in favor of an extra attacker. But rather than cranking up the pressure on Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, the Capitals yielded an empty net goal to Jochen Hecht.
"It's definitely frustrating," Poti said. "It would have been nice to win four in a row at home. We've got to be ready tomorrow."
The Capitals, who remain at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, left immediately afterward for Tampa, where they will face the Lightning tonight before heading to Detroit for a game against the league-leading Red Wings.
Washington's problems against the Sabres began early.
Alex Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead 1-0 on the power play 13:12 into the game by putting a Backstrom pass behind Miller.
But a mistake by Kolzig opened the door for Buffalo, which won consecutive games for the first time this month. The Capitals were on the power play when the goalie came to the top of the circles to play the puck. But when he attempted to backhand it to Ovechkin, he whiffed. Derek Roy pounced on the puck and fired it into an empty net with 63 seconds remaining in the first period.
"It was a rookie mistake and was inexcusable with a minute left, especially with a one-goal lead and playing pretty good," Kolzig, 37, said.
Backstrom, the Capitals' splendid rookie, scored 38 seconds into the second period to restore Washington's lead, 2-1, after finishing off a give-and-go with Viktor Kozlov.
But another costly Capitals mistake allowed the Sabres to come back at the end of the middle session. Maxim Afinogenov sneaked behind the Capitals defense on a miscommunication, took a 100-foot pass from defenseman Andrej Sekera up the middle, fended off Mike Green and deposited the puck behind Kolzig with 68 seconds left to send the game into the final frame tied at 2.
Drew Stafford gave Buffalo its first lead 19 seconds into the third. The winger corralled a shot off of the end boards, slipped free of Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and wrapped the puck around the net and stuffed it between Kolzig's pads to make it 3-2.
Washington, though, came right back with an assist from the Verizon Center dasher boards. A dump-in by Milan Jurcina awkwardly kicked off a joint along the end boards, sending the puck directly in front to Laich. With Miller behind the net to play the puck, all Laich had to do was bang it in, which he did, evening things 3-3 at 5:09.
"It was Christmas gift from Verizon Center," Laich joked before turning serious. The loss "stings. But we've got to move on. We let this one get away. It's been the story of our season so far."
Washington wasn't able to capitalize on that fortuitous bounce.
Kolzig bailed the Capitals out late by helping his teammates kill off a penalty and then with back-to-back saves from point-blank range on Jason Pominville with about five minutes remaining. But he couldn't stop Connolly's shot off a rebound moments later.
"I didn't think we had 19 players playing to their capabilities," Boudreau said.
Capitals Notes: C Michael Nylander returned to the lineup after missing four games with a shoulder injury. He had an assist. RW Chris Clark (strained groin muscle) and C Boyd Gordon (broken right hand) are on injured reserve and were not expected to accompany the team on its two-game road trip. . . . The Capitals were assessed a pair of too many men on the ice penalties and got away with another. . . . Brent Johnson is slated to start against the Lightning.