Capitals 2, Sabres 1
-- There was a considerable amount of luck, and suspect goaltending, involved in Jeff Halpern's scoring exploits tonight, but that did nothing to diminish their importance. Halpern produced his first two-goal game in nearly two years -- a span of 121 games -- and the Washington Capitals hung on for a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena.
Halpern, who had scored two non-empty net goals over the previous 35 games (dating from Dec. 15), scored a quirky goal in the final minutes of the first and second periods to offset Buffalo's territorial dominance and keep the Capitals two points ahead of Tampa Bay for the Southeast Division lead. Washington (32-25-7-3) has earned points in five straight games (4-0-0-1) and moved seven games over .500 for the first time, although it did not look pretty doing it.
The Capitals appeared to be on the verge of a disheartening loss. The Sabres could not convert their superior level of play to the scoreboard, however, which speaks more to the club's last-place record, recent bankruptcy, uncertain future and the outstanding play of goalie Olaf Kolzig.
"We had some guys who really battled hard, and we had some guys who never got off the bus," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "Fortunately, we won a hockey game. This time of year you take the points any way we can get it, but at the same time, Buffalo deserved to win the hockey game."
The Capitals had every opportunity to pounce in the opening minutes and instead seemed to play with indifference. Their power play, which surged to the top of the NHL in January, blew four chances in the first period for the second straight game, stretching their power-play funk to 2 for 46.
The first 20 minutes were not a complete waste, however. Halpern scored 32 seconds before the first intermission from along the boards at a freakishly difficult angle, finding a cranny between goalie Martin Biron's body and glove.
"I haven't been dazzling anyone this year with finding the net," said Halpern, who has 11 goals. "So I'm just trying to get pucks to the net."
The second period also played out directly in front of Kolzig. Buffalo mounted one salvo after the next and crowded in front of the crease. The tide of penalties also swung that way, with the Sabres getting four straight power plays, but Kolzig turned in a superb 35-save performance, including a diving, goal-line stop with his team short-handed and less than two minutes to play.
"They outplayed us and Olie was on his game," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "We've got to get better defensively. We had guys running around when they don't need to run around."
An illegal stick penalty on Jaromir Jagr, who is battling the flu, could have turned the game, but Washington's penalty killers excelled. Three Capitals collided on the penalty kill late in the second period, leaving Ales Kotalik alone to bang in a pass from a few feet out, tying the game. Washington had not surrendered a goal in the first or second period over the previous four games and has allowed six goals over five games.
Buffalo nearly took the lead on the next shift; Miroslav Satan's shot slipped between Kolzig's pads and into the net, but the lumbering goalie dislodged the net in the process, negating the goal. That interaction loomed even larger when the Capitals went on the power play with less than two minutes left in that period, with Cassidy opting to reward Halpern's line with a rare chance on the man advantage.
The top power-play unit "just didn't want to work to get to the net," Cassidy said. "They just looked disinterested."
Cassidy's decision proved wise. Halpern wheeled into the right faceoff circle and fired through a double screen (Mike Grier and Steve Konowalchuk), sending the puck under Biron with 74 seconds left in the second period for his first two-goal game since March 28, 2001.