Perhaps the real Washington Capitals finally appeared tonight, eight days late for the start of the NHL season.
The woeful team that needed a potful of luck to post its first victory Wednesday in Toronto turned in a superb performance tonight to end the Buffalo Sabres' three-game winning streak, 4-1.
Mike Gartner scored two goals and Pat Riggin stopped 23 shots as Washington won in Buffalo for the first time since Jan. 19, 1977. This was only the fourth victory for the Capitals in 45 lifetime games against the Sabres, whose newly tuned offense under Coach Jim Schoenfeld was shut down in such embarrassing fashion that many of the 14,603 fans were booing the home club in the third period.
"We certainly played like a different team," said Gartner, who has six goals in the last four games. "We were much faster, more aggressive, more confident and we had more zip. We moved the puck out of our end zone well, too. It was old-fashioned Washington Capitals hockey and I hope we stick to it."
It was a most pleasant night for Riggin, making his first appearance since he yielded four goals in eight shots to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. He made some big early saves when the game was scoreless and was not beaten until Mike Foligno deflected Mike Ramsey's shot past him with only 4:51 left in the game.
"I looked at films of the New Jersey game and I was terrible," Riggin said. "Tonight I had my timing and I felt good. The big thing, though, was that this was Washington Capitals hockey."
The Capitals (2-3) have no time to savor their success. They come home to Capital Centre Saturday night for a return engagement against the Sabres. It is one of only two home games in Washington's first nine and precedes a three-game western swing.
While Riggin was reassuring the Capitals that he was in top form, The Sabres' Tom Barrasso was proving tough to beat, too. Barrasso, under pressure from Washington's revived offense throughout the night, was pinned underneath the Capitals' Craig Laughlin when Gaetan Duchesne scored at 10:05 of the first period, ending the Buffalo goalie's shutout streak of 112 minutes 13 seconds.
Duchesne, whose overtime goal beat Toronto, lifted a rebound of a Dave Christian shot over Barrasso and the goalie complained that Laughlin was interfering with him. It was obvious, however, that Laughlin had been knocked into Barrasso by Buffalo's Larry Playfair.
"I saw the goalie go down and I shot at the open net," Duchesne said. "But it hit a post and I was scared it hadn't gone in."
Gartner made it 2-0 with 36 seconds left in the second period. Barrasso blocked a slap shot by Darren Veitch and the rebound went to Gartner, who slid a precise backhander through the legs of teammate Greg Adams, Playfair and Barrasso.
The Capitals broke things apart during a third-period penalty to Rod Langway. First Scott Stevens cleared the puck out of the Washington end, through point man Gilles Hamel. Gartner raced past to beat Barrasso on a breakaway for the first short-handed goal he could remember since his junior hockey days.
Then Dave Andreychuk pulled down Bob Gould on Gould's third short-handed breakaway of the game, evening the sides. Moments later, Bob Carpenter broke in alone and was hooked down from behind by rookie Bob Halkidis. Although referee Ron Wicks declined to award a penalty shot, Washington took advantage of the resulting power play.
Carpenter tried to feed Gartner through the slot and Buffalo's Bill Hajt deflected the pass. The puck popped in the air and Carpenter whacked it at waist level into the net for his second goal this season.
Bengt Gustafsson had two breakaways in addition to those mentioned as Washington's newly created pairs of offensive-minded penalty killers gave the Sabres' 0-for-4 power play plenty to think about. Buffalo had scored at least one extra-man goal in every game this season.
"We obviously have a lot more confidence-killing penalties than last year," Gould said. "The way it went, changes were in order. Now we're going with three groups, we have more speed and if we make a mistake, we're able to cover it. If we can get a few goals, all the better."
After the miracle win in Toronto, Langway raised his eyes to the ceiling and said, "No comment."
Tonight Langway said, "Winning that game was a big turning point. We'd been worried about offense and everybody was getting caught and we were giving up two on ones and three on twos. Now we know we can score goals and we're a lot more relaxed. If Barrasso doesn't play as well as he did, that's an 8-1 game."