Fighting a 22-year-old rookie is about the last thing diminutive Washington Capitals backup goalie Craig Billington wants to be doing at his age--33--especially against a rookie taller than 6 feet. But if duty calls, duty calls.

Billington, one of the Capitals' few summer acquisitions, was at his technical best tonight, stopping 34 shots (17 in the third period) in Washington's 2-1 overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres at Marine Midland Arena before 16,251.

When he wasn't shining in the net, Billington was darting out of it, getting involved in a melee with about six minutes left in the game. The Capitals, who improved to 3-1 this preseason, came out of that incident with a two-man advantage but failed to capitalize.

They ended up winning the game in overtime down two men: Peter Bondra led a two-on-one and Andrei Nikolishin, fresh from the penalty box, banged in the rebound with 2 minutes 55 seconds left in the extra period.

The tenor of the game turned when Yogi Svejkovsky, who rarely fights, decided to take on hulking defenseman Jean-Luc Grand Pierre after the two spent much of the game antagonizing each other. Svejkovsky was grossly overmatched, so, selflessly, sniper Bondra, a player with no better chance of survival, rushed to the youngster's aide. Sabres goalie Martin Biron left the net to join the fracas--a big no-no--leaving Billington no choice but to head down ice to join in.

"That's a long way to skate for an old man," said Billington, who never took off his mask. "I told him, 'Relax, I'm too old for this stuff.' "

Few punches landed (none by the goalies), but it was a strong display of team unity all around.

"We have to earn back the respect we lost last season," Coach Ron Wilson said. "That's how you do it, by standing up for each other and being team-tough."

Billington and Bondra were essential in the victory. Bondra keyed the attack and Billington kept his team in the game. He stopped flashy rookie Maxim Afinogenov on two breakaways early, went post-to-post on Cory Sarich's one-timer and generally bailed out a porous and passive defensive showing early.

"We need the defense to be a lot more aggressive than they've been," Wilson said.

Billington had no chance on Rob Ray's goal 10:32 into the game (defenseman Dmitri Mironov failed to tie him up). Winger Glen Metropolit, who is battling for one of the final roster spots, tied the game about five minutes later on his first shift after being crushed into the boards from behind, ripping a slap shot past Dominik Hasek while breaking down the right wing.

"When I got to the bench I realized, 'Whoa, my first NHL goal came against the best goalie in the world,' " Metropolit said.

Hasek, who announced this summer that he would retire at season's end despite his status as one of the league's premier goaltenders, was making his first appearance since undergoing hernia surgery Aug. 19. He never faced much sustained pressure, stopping 13 shots in two periods before Biron replaced him. Billington lasted the whole game and lived to tell about it.

Capitals Notes: After the game the Capitals returned their top two 1999 draft picks, Kris Beech and Michal Sivek, to their junior teams. They could crack the roster next season as 19-year-olds. "They look like they're going to be real players here," General Manager George McPhee said. "There's a temptation to keep them around, but the right thing to do is to return them to junior and not rush the process."