Capitals 3, Sabres 2

Two periods of prudent defense and a balanced attack eroded quickly for the Washington Capitals last night. A three-goal, third-period cushion that once looked invincible had dwindled to a fragile one-goal lead.

The Buffalo Sabres scored twice in the first 15 minutes of the final period last night, and pressed for the tying goal until the dying seconds, but were dealt a 3-2 defeat at MCI Center. Blown assignments and a lack of focus -- particularly from inexperienced defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski -- nearly cost the Capitals a huge game, and a victory that extended the lead over Tampa in the Southeast Division to three points.

"We go from playing probably the best defensive period we've had all year in the second period to just running around losing coverage," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "I don't know what were thinking in the third period. I thought we had addressed this before -- let's put teams away; let's not give them any life. . . . We've got to tighten up, especially late in the game. I don't know what else can be said. It's just up to individuals now."

The Capitals allowed 19 shots in the third period, after yielding 18 in the first two periods, and hung on thanks to Kolzig. Washington, outscored 67-52 in the third period this season, has made a habit of such theatrical endings and Buffalo, a bankrupt team with an uncertain future and no playoff hope, had the Capitals reeling on goals from Curtis Brown and Dmitri Kalinin.

"We relaxed and thought, 'Oh, we've got an easy game here against one of the worst teams in the league,' " defenseman Brendan Witt said. "They were more hungry there in the last 20 minutes and they almost tied it up."

The Capitals required less than five minutes to snatch the lead. Jaromir Jagr began and finished a beautiful string of passes to open the scoring. Jagr curled at the blueline and led Kip Miller down the wing, and Miller whisked the puck to the crease where Robert Lang, who has points in five straight games, deftly touched it back, for Jagr.

Jagr, who has 35 goals in 54 games against Buffalo, glided to the side of the crease until he was nearly flush with the near post, then flicked the puck back across to the far side, nestling it inside the opposite post for his 34th goal of the season, tied for fourth best in the NHL and three more than he produced all of last season.

"We came out a little flat," goalie Martin Biron said. "We gave [Jagr's] line a little too much room to play with."

The Capitals doubled their lead in a delayed-penalty situation. Witt crept in from the blueline and harnessed his huge stick -- something common for defensemen and a nightmare in offensive situations -- and beat Martin Biron with a sly shift to his backhand. Witt's first goal since March 26 (65 games), was probably the most picturesque of his career.

"Yeah, I'd have to say so," Witt said.

Washington's siege continued in the second period and Peter Bondra made it 3-0 with a rare power play goal 15 minutes into the second period. An errant pass struck Lang in the chest and bounced fortuitously to Miller, who fed Bondra a backdoor pass for his 24th goal of the season and second in as many games, tying the star's longest streak of the season.

Everything unraveled in the third period, however, beginning with Brown's goal less than three minutes in. Kwiatkowski, a journeyman who has played 19 straight games since being acquired from Ottawa, was on the ice for both goals and could find himself scratched for Saturday's game in New Jersey.

"We've got some defensemen who all of a sudden forgot what their assignments were," said Coach Bruce Cassidy, who coached Kwiatkowski in the minors. "It's puzzling when we've got a bit of a competition back there, and I think some of the guys got comfortable. So shame on myself and [assistant coach] Randy Carlyle for not pecking away at them, because they made some mistakes that are inexcusable. . . . But we'll fix that."

Washington Capitals' Alex Henry and Buffalo Sabres' Eric Boulton try to settle their differences. In third period, Capitals struggled and Sabres fought back.Capitals' Brendan Witt likes what he sees -- the puck hitting the net after flying past Sabres goalie Martin Biron.