Captain Ryan Walter and rookie Bobby Carpenter did all that was expected of them tonight, and more. The rest of the Washington Capitals did everything that was expected of them, and less. The result was a 5-3 victory for the Buffalo Sabres in the National Hockey League season opener for both teams.
Walter scored off Carpenter's assist 12 seconds into the game. He and Carpenter each scored later, but that was the extent of Washington's offense. The Walter-Carpenter-Mike Gartner line had 10 of the Capitals' 27 shots.
Ironically, the hard-working Walter may have cost his team the game with a crushing check 18 seconds into the second period, sending Buffalo center Derek Smith to the hospital with a shoulder separation.
The Sabres, tentative until then, suddenly started hitting and hustling. They sent 19 shots at goalie Mike Palmateer before the period ended and scored four times for a 5-2 lead.
"We did get them on the defensive a little bit after Smith went out," said Buffalo Coach Scotty Bowman. "Washington is a hard-working hockey club and our club had to work hard, too. Bob Hess made a pretty play that really got us going."
Hess, a defenseman overlooked in Monday's waiver draft while Bowman sweated out not having protected him, skated down the right side past Washington defender Jim McTaggart with the game tied at 2. Hess stick-handled the puck in the right-wing circle until Craig Ramsay raced down the slot, then Hess fed Ramsay for the score that put the Sabres ahead to stay.
A few minutes later, Lindy Ruff skated down the left wing, took rookie Randy Cunneyworth's carom pass off the side boards and sent a sharply angled shot past Palmateer, who had come out to cut down the angle, and into the net's far corner.
It became 5-2 and out of sight when Danny Gare, the Buffalo captain skating despite weakness from abscessed teeth, dropped a pass to Tony McKegney, who hit from the slot with 3:46 left in the second period.
"This was a good start for us, considering the problems we're having," Bowman said. "We're running out of centers, but we've just got to patch it with other guys."
Gil Perreault, broken ankle, and Andre Savard, bruised knee, already were missing, so Smith's departure left Buffalo with centers whose total NHL experience amounted to 21 games: Jean Francois Sauve 20, Cunneyworth one and McKegney, shifted from left wing, zero.
Experience, however, is no requirement for excellence, as Carpenter proved in a cool, well-played debut. Carpenter had said before the game that he had no special concerns and he showed that lack of jitters on the first shift.
Carpenter won the faceoff from McKegney, then took a return pass from defenseman Paul MacKinnon and headmanned the puck to Walter, who got behind defenders Richie Dunn and Bill Hajt to line a shot off the pads of goalie Don Edwards. The 12-second mark missed by one second the club record for a goal at the start of a game.
"We had worked on that in practice, where the centerman comes to the left and I cut off," Walter said. "It gives us a little motion in the neutral zone. Paul MacKinnon made the good pass to get it going."
After Sauve's deflection pulled Buffalo even, Carpenter produced his first NHL goal at 3:06 of the second period for a 2-1 Washington lead. Edwards blocked a shot by Walter and the puck came loose in front. Edwards stopped Carpenter's rebound, but the puck slid behind the goalie and Carpenter vaulted a fallen defender to push it into the net.
"He goes to the net well," Walter said. "He's hungry when he sees that puck in there. I've been trying to get myself to do the same thing."
Walter did in the final period as he cut down the middle and sent a backhander past Edwards' glove with 4:25 remaining. The Sabres had been coasting for so long that they suddenly were vulnerable, but Orest Kindrachuk, set up at close range by Bengt Gustafsson, somehow missed the net with two minutes left to write off a last-gasp comeback attempt.