By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:21 AM
Just when it appeared the Washington Capitals were going to fall into their dangerous pattern of giving up a sizable lead, they did the opposite. As the Buffalo Sabres pressed and shrunk the home team's lead to just one goal in the second period, the Capitals refused to wilt.
After initially being flustered by the Sabres' sudden revival, the Capitals regained their composure with a strong penalty kill, which started momentum for a stellar defensive effort for the third period. Washington did not allow another goal and accomplished the mission they've chased many times this season by shutting Buffalo down for most of the final 27 minutes en route to a 4-2 win Wednesday at Verizon Center.
Not only did Washington prevent Buffalo from completing its comeback, but it held the Sabres to eight shots at even strength for the rest of the contest, an effort that spoke to the willingness of every player to commit to a straightforward defensive approach.
The most momentum Buffalo managed after it cut a three-goal advantage to one came with a flurry of five shots on a power play in the third, but with shot-blocking efforts and strong work by goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 31 saves, the Capitals held on. Alexander Semin's empty-net goal at 19 minutes 56 seconds of the period secured the final margin.
"We did a good job in the third period of getting pucks deep and keeping it simple," said Jason Chimera, who had two assists and was part of Washington's most consistent line against Buffalo with David Steckel (one goal) and Matt Bradley (one goal, one assist). "When you see guys like [Alex Ovechkin] and [Nicklas Backstrom] and Semin dumping the puck in, it means a lot to shut them down. So it's nice to see that."
Buffalo, which was 4-0-1 in its previous five outings, defeated the Capitals 3-2 in overtime this past Saturday on a goal by Thomas Vanek during a stretch of three games in which Washington could not hold a lead. But in the two days off since their most recent contest, the Capitals renewed their determination to prove they could close out an opponent with defense.
For the third straight contest, the Capitals took charge of the first period, scored first and spent the bulk of the opening frame in the opponent's zone. When the territorial advantage led to 1:47 of a two-man advantage, Washington's power play looked effortless when Semin sent a pass across the crease to Backstrom for a 1-0 lead.
Then the freshly assembled line of Chimera, Steckel and Bradley took center stage with its forechecking, which helped the forwards create scoring chances on almost all of their shifts. The trio accounted for the second and third Washington goals as Chimera centered passes to Bradley and Steckel, respectively, from his spot behind the net.
Bradley's shot squeaked through goaltender Ryan Miller's pads, while Steckel's ricocheted off both posts and the netminder's skate before crossing the goal line. Miller, who was also in net for Buffalo's win against Washington last week, made 25 saves.
Owning a 3-0 edge midway through the second period, Washington never seemed to see the Sabres coming as they found their legs, began reaching loose pucks first and suddenly surged back in the game. A power-play goal by Derek Roy and a tally from Jordan Leopold just 48 seconds apart made it 3-2 with just more than seven minutes remaining in the period and Washington looked discombobulated.
"We just had to settle down," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of that time in the game. "There's been so much talk about us not being able to play defensively and we started to panic - not panic, just getting all excited on the bench and everything. We had the veteran guys saying 'Relax, we're playing a great game. Let's get it going' and we did."
Buffalo continued to zip around the ice until and through a delay-of-game penalty on Ovechkin. Fearless despite the magnitude of those two minutes, the Capitals penalty killers challenged, blocked shots and made short-handed opportunities of their own. By the time Washington successfully extinguished the threat, the players' confidence appeared renewed.
"With the exception of two minutes there in the second, we played really well," Steckel said. "We talked about it before the game and we came out and executed it. We need to build off it. One game like that does not a season make."