Sabres 4, Capitals 3

It would have been too easy for the Washington Capitals to hold on to a third-period lead tonight, cruise to their third straight win and continue a steady progression toward turning their season around.

Instead, the Capitals surrendered two goals in the final 3 minutes 11 seconds and fell, 4-3, to the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena, collapsing against the league's worst team. Washington (12-14-2; 5-9-2 on the road) continues to offset every break, every advantage, with an immediate decline and remains very much in flux as it prepares for what could be a season-defining West Coast trip.

"It's like we're afraid to win hockey games," Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "It's like we've never had a lead before. I look at that third period, and what did Buffalo do special? They got the puck out of their own zone, they got it deep and they outworked us for second chances. They just outworked us. It was their third game in four nights and they just outworked us, outworked us. It's disappointing. We just flushed two points down the toilet."

The teams were tied entering the third period and Jaromir Jagr placed a shot in the top of the net to finish off a three-on-one less than three minutes in, giving Washington its only lead. True to form, that lead did not last long. The Sabres pelted rookie goalie Sebastien Charpentier, who was recalled because of Olaf Kolzig's pulled thigh muscle, with 22 shots in the period and pinned the Capitals deep in their zone.

"They put us back on our heels and we needed to get a few good shifts in there and we didn't," center Jeff Halpern said. "It's very disappointing to give up a lead in the third [period] and lose a game in the last five minutes. Very disappointing."

Dmitri Kalinin tied the game with less than four minutes to play, capping a long shift in Washington's end by slipping a shot under Charpentier's pad. Buffalo scored again 68 seconds later, with Adam Mair taking a feed from behind the net and beating the goalie between his legs, a rare but crucial misstep for the 25-year-old.

"I let my guard down for a little bit in the last few minutes and that was it," Charpentier said. "I just ran out of gas. I probably should have had those shots."

Charpentier, who was recalled from the minors Friday night with the Portland Pirates playing in far-off Newfoundland, had a 3:15 a.m. wake-up call to catch a plane to Toronto and then took a cab to Buffalo, arriving in time for the morning skate. Charpentier made 40 saves tonight despite a nagging hamstring problem. Kolzig, who pulled a muscle in his upper thigh during the warm-up for Friday's game, received treatment today but still is not able to raise his leg normally. The Capitals are off Sunday and Kolzig hopes to rejoin the team for practice Monday, although the area is still tender.

"It feels a lot better today," Kolzig said. "I think I'll be ready to get back on the ice Monday."

The Capitals did an adequate job of protecting Charpentier early tonight, but still not enough to prevent the team from surrendering the opening goal for the 18th time in 28 games. Washington lost control of the puck along the boards and Ales Kotalik broke in on Charpentier, making his fifth appearance of the season, and scored on his backhand about 10 minutes in.

"I don't think there was a guy on the ice who did not turn the puck over in our end at one point," Cassidy said. "It's just inexcusable. . . . We're not a good defending team. Why is that? To me it's half commitment, hard work and work ethic."

The Capitals began to sustain charges up ice and tied the game when rookie Brian Sutherby, making the most of a promotion from the fourth to the second line, stuffed in a rebound with seven minutes left in the second period; Washington promptly handed that goal right back.

Jean-Francois Fortin, back after missing three games with a stomach virus, headed to the penalty box on the next shift and Miroslav Satan scored on the power play. Buffalo goalie Martin Biron got caught wondering on the next power play, however, and Peter Bondra scored short-handed into the empty net to tie the game at 2 before the second intermission.

Capitals Notes: Michael Nylander extended his point streak to 10 games, the longest by a Capital since Adam Oates's 11-game run in February 2001. . . . Defenseman Rick Berry was a healthy scratch. Defenseman Steve Eminger was scratched for the third straight game and likely will leave the Capitals before they head to the West Coast to join Canada's world junior championship team, missing close to a month of action. . . . Forward Alex Henry was scratched for the third straight game. Forwards Dainius Zubrus (hand surgery) and Stephen Peat (hand) remain out with long-term injuries. . . . Sabres forward Jochen Hecht lost part of his right ear after being struck in the side of the head with a puck. Hecht was hurt seven minutes into the third period after the Sabres won a faceoff deep in the Capitals' zone.

Sabres' Tim Connolly, left, rejoices as Capitals' Sebastien Charpentier yields game-winning goal to Adam Mair late in the third period. Sabres are 7-14-4-1.