When the Washington Capitals played sloppy and uninterested hockey tonight, their goalie was stellar. When they played with a passion, repeatedly crawling back into the game, Olaf Kolzig allowed a soft goal. In the end, the combination of mistakes led to a 5-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Marine Midland Arena.
Saturday night, the Capitals snapped Boston's six-game home winning streak. They came close to duplicating that feat against the Sabres--battling from 1-0 and 3-1 deficits on Ulf Dahlen's first two goals of the season, and almost tying the game early in the third period on rushes by Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern.
Those hopes caved when Kolzig failed to stop Curtis Brown's slap shot 3 minutes 17 seconds into the third period. The puck slipped under Kolzig's arm and trickled over the goal line. Washington maintained its intensity, but Sabres rookie goalie Martin Biron, filling in for an injured Dominik Hasek, made huge saves; Brian Holzinger's short-handed goal cemented the win with less than five minutes left.
"I let the guys down in the third period," Kolzig said. "I let in a brutal goal and that took the wind out of our sails."
The Capitals (7-9-4 overall, 2-6-1 on the road) lost a chance to pull within .500 at the season's quarter-mark. Their four-game unbeaten streak is over, thanks largely to a poor start tonight.
Nearly the entire first period was played in Washington's end. The Sabres were picking on the Capitals' defense like a veteran quarterback targeting a rookie defensive back. Repeatedly, the Sabres sent long passes to speedy wingers, dashing behind the defense. Geoff Sanderson and Maxim Afinogenov exploited the defense wide. The Capitals were scrambling, but, to their credit, played simple hockey, content to chip the puck out. Buffalo would retrieve the puck and the onslaught would begin again, with Kolzig often all that prevented a goal.
"To play as well as we did in Boston, this was the exact opposite tonight," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "We didn't have enough guys in the boat rowing in the same direction. . . . We had some guys not rowing at all."
Eventually, the Sabres would score, and sniper Miroslav Satan netted the first of two goals on a redirection nearly 16 minutes into the game. The Sabres went to the dressing room with the lead; they had entered the game 7-0-2 when leading after one period. Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik opened the second period by tearing around Washington's net untouched. Kolzig kept the Capitals in the game, with Sabres buzzing around him. Finally, he got some support.
Washington tied the game on the power play, where they have struggled all season. Adam Oates (two assists; 11 points in past 10 games) fed Dahlen, who signed this summer after playing two years in Sweden. Dahlen one-timed a puck off the post, scoring his first NHL goal since 1996-97 and snapping the Capitals' 2-for-26 slump on the man advantage. One special teams' trend was bucked, soon another would be too.
The Sabres pulled ahead on Satan's second goal--the Capitals were caught flat-footed in the neutral zone and he finished off a two-on-one. Buffalo went on the man advantage about a minute later and Washington's record streak of 53 straight penalty kills over 12 games ended. Richard Zednik sat in the box as Brown scored. Buffalo led 3-1 midway through the game. The Capitals' resurgence began there.
Zednik knocked a shot off the post and Dahlen, elevated to the top line--part of sweeping line changes that Wilson made to spark the attack--kept creating chances. He used his wide frame to shield the puck from defensemen, turned in the low slot and whipped a shot past Biron's glove, making it 3-2 about 13 minutes into the second period.
"It doesn't mean anything when you lose," Dahlen said. "We couldn't get going. Olie kept us in the game and gave us [a] chance to win it."
The Capitals were dominating play, putting Buffalo on its heels. By the time the third period began, the Sabres were just clinging to the lead. A few minutes later, the game was out of reach.