By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 27, 2008
In the closing moments of the second period last night, an apparent power-play goal by Alex Ovechkin was wiped out when a referee ruled that one of his teammates had interfered with the Buffalo Sabres' goaltender.
It only made Ovechkin more determined.
With his team clinging to a one-goal lead midway through the third period, Ovechkin added another how-did-he-do-that highlight to a résumé replete with them, beating three Sabres before scoring while falling down to lift the injury-depleted Capitals to a 3-2 victory at Verizon Center, where the sold-out crowd saluted him with a chant of "MVP!"
"It was a pretty cool goal," Ovechkin said of his 23rd. "I just made some moves. I was tired and I just fell and shoot. You always want to do some crazy things. It was a great goal and I'm happy it happened to me."
Viktor Kozlov and Boyd Gordon also scored and José Theodore made 22 saves to secure the Capitals' seventh win in eight games and improve their Eastern Conference-best home record to 14-1-1.
And they did it without eight players who were on the opening night roster.
Most teams might crumble under the strain of so many injuries. Most teams, though, don't have a player who can do what Ovechkin makes look so routine.
The play to set up Ovechkin's goal began with 36-year-old minor league call-up Bryan Helmer, who shoveled a clearing pass that wound up on Ovechkin's stick. Ovechkin then quickly tapped the puck around Sabres center Derek Roy in the Buffalo zone, initiating a race in the opposite direction.
Ovechkin out-skated defenseman Toni Lydman through the neutral zone, then turned Henrik Tallinder inside out before losing his edge and falling. But before Ovechkin hit the ice, he slid the puck past Patrick Lalime's skate and the post at 8 minutes 27 seconds of the third period to put the Capitals ahead 3-1.
"That was a determination goal," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He got it and made a move. They were checking him and he was losing the puck. But he was just determined. It was like, '[The referees] took one away from me, and they're not going to take another one away.' "
As deflating as the goal and the ensuing chant might have been for the visitors, the Sabres did not fold. Moments later, Maxim Afinogenov inadvertently redirected a Lydman slap shot with his skate with 1:49 remaining, trimming the Capitals' lead to 3-2. But the Sabres would get no closer.
As solid as Theodore's performance was, the goalie, like most of his teammates, couldn't avoid talking about Ovechkin's remarkable tally.
"He can score in any way, and he showed that tonight," said Theodore, who won consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 26-28. "When you have Ovechkin coming in 110 miles per hour, that's tough for a goalie."
Lalime added: "He made a nice move and fooled me a little as he fell down. When he went on the ice, I didn't know what was going to happen there."
After a scoreless first period, Kozlov opened the scoring at 17:46 of the second period, firing a perfectly placed slap shot from the circle past Lalime.
Sixty-nine seconds later, it appeared that Ovechkin had given his team a 2-0 lead on the power play. Ovechkin launched a slap shot right off the faceoff into the goal, but referee Wes McCauley ruled that Brooks Laich had interfered with the Sabres' goaltender.
So instead of taking a two-goal lead into the third period, the Capitals were left clinging to a 1-0 edge. Gordon eventually stretched the lead to 2-0 early in the third period when he redirected a Milan Jurcina slap shot around Lalime.
A few minutes later, Ovechkin was sent to the penalty box for slashing, and the Sabres made him pay for his transgression. Drew Stafford zipped a cross-slot pass to Thomas Vanek, who banged in his 25th goal of the season at 6:13 to cut the Capitals' lead to 2-1.
About two minutes later, Ovechkin delivered the best Capitals goal of the season.
"It was tough," Roy said. "We missed maybe three stick checks on him. He is strong, big, fast. He works hard and he has got great shot."
Capitals Notes: Captain Chris Clark returned from a 14-game absence because of a fractured forearm and recorded four hits in 11:53 of ice time. Winger Tomas Fleischmann was sidelined with the flu. Missing because of injury were Brent Johnson (leg), Mike Green (shoulder), Alexander Semin (back), Sergei Fedorov (ankle), Tom Poti (groin), Jeff Schultz (broken finger) and John Erskine (concussion). Fedorov was placed on long term injured reserve yesterday, so he is not eligible to return until Jan. 9.