By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009
BUFFALO -- On Monday, the Washington Capitals ascended to first place in the NHL standings for only the second time this late in a season.
On Wednesday, Coach Bruce Boudreau said some of them played as if they were content simply with getting there.
For the first 40 minutes, the Capitals didn't compete with enough energy to beat Buffalo. In the final 20 minutes, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller made sure they didn't, making 13 of his 35 saves to send the Capitals to a 3-0 defeat, their first loss in seven games and first shutout in 69 games.
"You can get to six [wins in a row] and be satisfied and say, 'Hey, we're pretty good.' Or you can say, 'Listen, I want to be great and I want to push the envelope,' " Boudreau said. "And it looked like we were happy with six tonight for whatever reason, whether it was being on the road or happy with six or complacent because they're not used to smelling the air where they're at."
The night began with a fluky goal that deflected off of a defenseman's skate and eluded José Theodore, who started in place of the injured Semyon Varlamov. And things didn't get much better.
In the visitors' dressing room at HSBC Arena, the team leaders said they were most disappointed with the low energy level, non-existent forecheck and inability to capitalize on scoring chances.
"It was the effort on our part," Brooks Laich said. "We're the bigger team, the faster team, the stronger team and we got outworked. We knew they were going to bring a big effort tonight and we didn't respond."
"It shouldn't be hard" to stay motivated, Laich added. "We haven't won anything. I don't think we should take a whole lot of satisfaction. We're only up by one point, so it's not a real big deal. Then as soon as you let off, like we did tonight, now we'll probably fall back and not be in first place anymore."
Theodore (25 saves) had his moments, such as stopping Thomas Vanek in the second period. But he was outdueled by Miller, who has handed the Capitals two of their past four shutouts. (Columbus's Steve Mason has the other two.)
"If you had to compare the two, Ryan was better," Boudreau said. "It doesn't mean José was bad. But Ryan was great."
"You could tell he was so on from the first save he made on [Tomas] Fleischmann with his leg," the coach added. "You just knew he was going to be tough to beat. But we didn't get enough traffic or enough second shots. And when we did, his glove hand was so good it was impossible to beat."
Miller, the NHL's leader in goals against average and save percentage, was at his best in the third period when the Capitals finally decided to push back.
He turned Brendan Morrison away empty-handed for the second time on a rebound early, then sent Nicklas Backstrom away shaking his head late after snatching his rebound from point-blank range out of the air with his mitt to clinch his fourth shutout of the season.
Miller was showered with cheers from the 17,982 fans, who stood, cheered and bowed after the stop on Backstrom.
"We have to look in the mirror," Morrison said. "We didn't play a very good game. We weren't skating tonight. It wasn't a very good effort overall. We put more pucks to the net in the third period, but were playing passive, which is not our game."
"It's something we addressed a few times," he added when asked about guarding against complacency. "Sometimes staying on top is more difficult than getting to the top. We talked about it, so it isn't like it snuck up on us. Every team we see is going to bring their best against us every night."
And that's exactly what they got from Miller and the rest of the Sabres, who were coming off a pair of losses.
Buffalo struck first, taking a 1-0 lead on a fluky goal by Steve Montador. The defenseman's shot from the point hit Milan Jurcina, then floated over Theodore's blocker pad 4 minutes 6 seconds into the contest.
The Capitals had a number of early scoring chances but Alex Ovechkin and Morrison both missed open nets, and Miller stopped everything else.
Washington's fortunes were no better in the second period.
Defenseman Brian Pothier blocked a shot with his right leg -- likely saving a goal -- early in the session and soon thereafter went missing from the bench. The team did not provide an update on Pothier's status after the game.
After Pothier left the bench, Miller robbed Fleischmann with a scintillating glove save. Then Nathan Gerbe put the Sabres ahead 2-0 by firing the puck between Theodore's pads from the side of the goal.
It got worse.
Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder skated the puck end to end and fired a shot that hit Theodore in the chest and bounced right back through the slot to Tallinder. He didn't miss the second time, firing the puck past Theodore's glove to make it 3-0.
"We had a lot of passengers tonight," Boudreau said. "We just weren't sharp from the goalie out."