Prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, both the Capitals and Buffalo Sabres faced high expectations. Each team completed its share of offeseason moves, and across the hockey world, predictions came in. Some that wagered Washington would win the Stanley Cup and some picked the Sabres to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown.
On Tuesday, the two squads meet for Game 77 of the regular season far from those spots, but in a game ripe with importance.
This final meeting of the season between the Capitals and Sabres will be one of the most important each plays down the stretch as the teams battle to gain an advantage in the race for the eighth and final playoff berth in the East.
“We’re both kind of in the same situation as of right now,” Troy Brouwer said. “Since the beginning of the season everybody considered them to be underachieving as far as the season goes. They made a couple moves at the deadline, maybe they thought they were gonna be out of it and rebuilding but I think it’s obviously helped them. They’re playing good hockey we have to be ready for the start of the game because they’re going to come out with a lot of energy.”
The Sabres are 18-5-5 in their last 28 games, a surge that has seen them climb up the standings to where they stand now with 84 points – tied with Washington, which wins the battle for eighth because it has more regulation and overtime wins (36 to 30).
Key to that run has been the play of all-star goaltender Ryan Miller, who is 13-1-3 in his last 17 appearances with a stunning 1.78 goals against average and .941 save percentage after stopping 498 shots of the 529 he faced during that stretch.
To get two points against the Sabres, Washington will need to crack Miller early and prevent him from gaining confidence and momentum over the course of the contest.
“We have to get some rubber to net and get traffic to the net and get shots through,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “He’s a good goalie — he’s been good for years so it’s going to be a challenge for us, but we just have to get pucks to the net.”
Buffalo has won four straight heading into Verizon Center, averaging 4.25 goals per game in that stretch. Looking back even further, they’ve scored three or more goals in seven of their past eight games.
While the Sabres may not have the biggest names in the way of offensive threats, they manage to make the most of their opportunities. During their four-game winning streak Buffalo has also spread the offense around, with nine different players combining to score 17 goals. Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson each have three.
“They do a really good job getting the puck, battling, getting it to the net and they’re good in front of the net,” Karl Alzner said. “I think they fly under the radar a lot. People don’t always take them as serious as they should, because they got a lot of really good players on that team. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re being successful right now, is people take them too lightly and they make them pay.”
More on the Capitals:
— Capitals enjoy playing in front of Holtby
— Hunter: Contest vs. Sabres is like a Game 7
— Backstrom encouraged by practice Monday
— Ward improving, but questionable vs. Sabres
— El-Bashir: Ovechkin’s well-timed return to form