By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
BUFFALO, Dec. 30 -- After 2 1/2 months of juggling his goaltenders, hoping for one to step forward and seize the starter's role, the waiting might be over for Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau.
José Theodore made 31 saves to record his fourth consecutive victory on Tuesday night, prospect Chris Bourque notched his first NHL goal and the power play struck twice to lift the streaking Capitals to a 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena.
Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom and Boyd Gordon also tallied for the Capitals, who have won nine of their past 10 games, opened a 12-point lead in the Southeast Division and, perhaps more importantly, proved they can win in Buffalo. The victory was only their second in nine games (2-7-0) here, avenged a humbling 5-0 defeat on Nov. 1 and gave them a win in four of their last five road games.
"Everybody played with confidence tonight," said Theodore, who ended a personal five-game losing streak in Buffalo, dating back to his days in Montreal. "It was time to put everything aside and play the way we can and that's what we did tonight."
No one, though, displayed more confidence than Theodore, who, since being pulled in the first period of the come-from-behind victory over the Rangers in New York one week ago, has stopped 95 of 101 shots and been one of the Capitals' most consistent players.
"He was very good," Boudreau said. "Really solid tonight."
Before the game, Boudreau implored his players "exorcise our demons from this building" in an effort to "overcome those thoughts and believe you can win everywhere."
It was apparent that the Capitals were intent on doing just that early, as they raced to a 2-0 lead on scores by Laich and Bourque coupled with some outstanding goaltending by Theodore and a sub-par performance by Sabres netminder Ryan Miller (27 saves).
Laich finished one of the prettiest power plays of the season 1 minute 57 seconds into the game, firing in a rebound after a series of tic-tac-toe passes between Alex Ovechkin, Viktor Kozlov and Backstrom. Laich, standing in front, notched his sixth goal in nine games to put the Capitals ahead 1-0.
"Rebounds were the key tonight; we scored three rebounds and an empty netter," Boudreau said.
Bourque, who was recalled Tuesday when it appeared Donald Brashear (bruised leg) might not play, extended the Capitals' lead to 2-0 with his first NHL goal in his ninth career game. Again, the play began with a series of crisp passes, beginning with an on-the-mark breakout pass by Tyler Sloan, who was recalled earlier in the day to replace Karl Alzner, who sat out with a bruised hand.
Bourque skated hard to the slot, and when David Steckel's shot rebounded right to him off of Miller's pads, whipped it into the corner.
"Ask anyone and they'll say it doesn't matter how their first one came," said Bourque, son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. "It's just nice to get it out of the way."
Boudreau praised Bourque's effort, which included throwing a number of body checks against players much bigger than him.
"He's an energy guy. He comes in and competes and doesn't let his size make a difference," Boudreau said. "I think he can play."
Theodore made sure the Capitals maintained their two-goal edge by stopping 10 first-period shots, including a short-handed breakaway by Jason Pominville, who also took a swipe at the rebound.
"It would have been 2-1 and given them a lot of jump," Boudreau said of the timely stop.
Another power-play goal in the second period -- this one by Backstrom -- put the game away. Kozlov faked a shot in the middle of the circle, then dished to Backstrom, who in one fluid motion stopped the pass and snapped the puck past Miller at 12:11 to make it 3-0.
The Sabres attempted to get back into the game in the third period after multiple breakdowns allowed checkers Paul Gaustad and Adam Mair to waltz deep into the zone. Mair took a feed from Gaustad and beat Theodore over his shoulder with a backhanded shot to cut the Capitals' lead to 3-1 at 7:41.
Buffalo had one last chance to rally late in the third period when Capitals defenseman Shaone Morrisonn was whistled for hooking with 1:07 left. Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff pulled Miller, creating a six-on-four advantage. But Gordon shot a puck from his own zone into an empty net to make it 4-1.
Clarke MacArthur scored with 11 seconds remaining, but it was too little too late for the Sabres, who have lost four of five overall (1-2-2) and skated off to a chorus of boos.
Capitals Notes: In addition to being without Brashear and Alzner, the team also missed Alexander Semin (back), Sergei Fedorov (ankle), Tom Poti (groin) and John Erskine (concussion).