By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009
It wasn't how the Washington Capitals had envisioned capturing their second straight Southeast Division title. But last night's miscue-riddled effort against the Buffalo Sabres was good enough to get it done anyway.
But just barely.
The Capitals blew three one-goal leads, then settled for a 5-4 overtime loss after Jason Pominville capitalized on a turnover in the extra session to cap a bittersweet night at Verizon Center.
"We figured we were going to win the division [because] we didn't think we were going to lose five in a row," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But we've got to get smarter to be able to play better. We had guys staying out late, a cross-ice pass in overtime with no defensemen on the ice. That's just not a smart play."
Boudreau was referring to the play that led to the Sabres' winner. Sergei Fedorov had skated the puck out of the Capitals' zone, but when a Buffalo player pinched down on him, he elected to make a risky, backhanded pass instead of banking the puck safely off the boards. The puck was intercepted by Tim Connolly, and the slick-stickhandling center quickly fed it to Pominville, who beat rookie Simeon Varlamov 1 minute 51 seconds into extra time.
Fedorov's night mirrored his team's -- it was uneven in every sense of the word. The 39-year-old scored twice, but he was in the penalty box for the Sabres' third goal before committing the turnover in overtime.
"I just passed across, and [Connolly] read it, and he made his play and [Pominville] put it in. That was about it," Fedorov said of the mistake.
The loss also cost the Capitals a point in the race for the second seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The New Jersey Devils beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4, in overtime to pull within two points of the Capitals. Both teams have four games remaining.
The Sabres, meantime, moved within four points of the eighth and final spot in the East. And they have Ryan Miller, Maxim Afinogenov and Pominville to thank for earning both points.
The Capitals' power play struck three times in the opening 24 minutes and moved into the league lead in effectiveness (25.6 percent), surpassing the Detroit Red Wings' unit.
But the Sabres pulled even with 9:39 remaining on a goal by Afinogenov, who corralled a deflected puck between the circles and fired it over Varlamov. The rookie goaltender wasn't as sharp in his fourth NHL start and suffered his first loss, falling to 3-0-1 after watching three Sabres goals deflect in off his teammates.
"They were tough goals," Boudreau said of Varlamov's play. "They were redirect goals. Only the last one, I thought, was there much he could have done about it."
Unlike last season, when the Capitals clinched the division on the final night of the regular season to cap a remarkable comeback from last place, the vibe in the home dressing room was one of disappointment.
"Obviously we're happy to clinch the division but disappointed with the outcome of the game," forward Matt Bradley said. "We're going to have to limit those little mistakes that cost us goals against."
Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin scored the other Capitals' goals. Ovechkin's first-period goal was his 218th and moved him into a tie with Mike Ridley for third on the Capitals' all time goal-scoring list.
The Capitals, however, were in little mood to toast their achievements on a night when they made too many mistakes, deflected a trio of shots into their own net and suffered a mental breakdown in overtime.
"We wanted to get the division title, but we want second place in the conference," Bradley added. "New Jersey won tonight, so it's going to come right down to the wire. Every game is a big, important game for us."
Ovechkin opened the scoring on the power play at 5:35. The play began with a deft pass from Viktor Kozlov to a cutting Brooks Laich, who backhanded the puck through the crease to the reigning MVP.
But Buffalo's first three goals went in off Capitals -- one off Milan Jurcina's right skate, another off Kozlov's stick and a third off defenseman Shaone Morrisonn's leg.
"I think everything evens out," Boudreau said. "Yes, they were tough breaks but when you win you make your own breaks."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman John Erskine was a healthy scratch. . . . Donald Brashear missed his ninth consecutive game with a sprained knee. The veteran enforcer hopes to return tomorrow. With another capacity crowd, the Capitals set a record for total attendance in a season with 723,715.