Sabres 8, Capitals 5

It's a pattern that has come to define the Washington Capitals' season: big wins followed by even bigger defeats, inspired efforts followed by uneven ones. Thursday's 8-5 loss to the Buffalo Sabres was just the latest example of a young team grappling with inconsistency.

Just 48 hours after the Capitals rallied for a shootout victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, they found themselves with a 6-1 deficit and were unable to recover. It also marked the fourth time they've surrendered six or more goals one game after a win.

"We came out and let a couple of bad breaks put us in a hole," Capitals Captain Jeff Halpern said. "Then we came out in the second and it was more of the same."

Halpern was referring to the opening minutes of the second period when Dmitri Kalinin and Brian Campbell, on the power play, scored back-to-back goals to extend the Sabres' lead to 6-1. The Capitals responded with three consecutive goals, including one by rookie Alex Ovechkin on the power play, and then out-shot the Sabres 18-3 in the third period, keeping the announced crowd of 12,471 on edge. But their listless start was too much o overcome.

"As a coach, you ask your players to battle and play right to the end," Coach Glen Hanlon said. "Alex played his heart out."

Veteran defenseman Jamie Heward didn't have an answer when asked about the letdowns, but offered this assessment:

"After they scored one and we got one right back, I thought we were going to settle in. But it just never happened. They got some lucky goals, some lucky breaks. It was uncharacteristic of the way we've played lately. We aren't going to quit, but we'd rather battle back and win than battle back just to come close."

Although No. 1 goaltender Olie Kolzig pronounced himself ready to play after Wednesday's practice, Hanlon took the cautious approach and handed the start to Johnson, his third in a row. Johnson had been dominant in Buffalo, boasting a 5-0 lifetime record and a 1.38 goals against average. But not on Thursday.

Campbell scored 37 seconds into the game on a low wrist shot that slipped through Johnson's leg pads as the goalie shuffle-stepped in the crease. It wasn't much of a shot, but it was enough to put the Sabres ahead 1-0. Johnson (19 saves) has twice surrendered a goal on the opposing team's first shot of the night.

The Capitals (39 shots on goal) got an important equalizer from Chris Clark 3 minutes 29 seconds later, but it didn't stay that way for long. Buffalo's Ales Kotalik scored a power-play goal, beating Johnson over the blocker at 14:36 in the first period. Taylor Pyatt struck twice in final 3:32 of the opening period to make it 4-1.

In the second period, the goals by Kalinin and Campbell put the game out Washington's reach, 6-1. Andrew Cassels, Brian Sutherby and Ovechkin made things interesting, beating Martin Biron in succession during a span of 7:55 to pull the Capitals within 6-4. Ovechkin's score, a blast from the top of the circle that found the upper corner, was the 20-year-old left wing's 15th goal in 19 games this season and his seventh in the past six games.

Pyatt's third goal of the game came with 3:31 left and restored the Sabres' three goal cushion, 7-4. Washington's Ben Clymer and Buffalo's Tim Connolly also scored in the final minutes, but the result had already been clinched.

Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brendan Witt was ejected midway through the second period after being assessed an instigator minor penalty, five minutes for fighting with rookie Thomas Vanek, a 10-minute misconduct and a 10-minute game misconduct, giving the Sabres a seven-minute power play. . . . Buffalo sniper Maxim Afinogenov missed his third consecutive game with an undisclosed muscle strain.

Buffalo's Mike Grier follows the puck in front of the Capitals' Steve Eminger and goalie Brent Johnson.