BUFFALO — That it took the Washington Capitals until their 33rd shot over 45 minutes into Sunday night’s game to put a puck past Sabres netminder Ryan Miller offered a harbinger of how this contest would play out. That lone tally wouldn’t be enough to wrestle two points away from the worst team in the NHL.
Despite heavily outshooting lowly Buffalo, the Capitals fell, 2-1, in a shootout at First Niagara Center. Sabres captain Steve Ott scored the only goal in the six-round tiebreak session, but it was Miller in the spotlight with 49 saves in 65 minutes and a perfect shootout performance.
But of the 50 shots Washington put on net — the Sabres finished with 17 — few came with traffic in front, allowing Miller a clean view of the pucks headed his way. That allowed the Sabres to overcome the largest shot deficit in a win in their franchise history, besting a record of 31 that had stood since March 21, 1971.
“He saw too many pucks tonight,” said Troy Brouwer, who recorded Washington’s only goal. “You’re going to encounter some games where the goalie makes saves when he needs to and you don’t win. We needed to find a way to get more traffic around the net, maybe second and third opportunities to give ourselves some better looks because most of the shots that we took he saw and he stopped.”
The Capitals controlled the game from the outset as they dominated every metric except goals, spending significant time in the offensive zone and bottling up Buffalo.
The Sabres were outshot 15-3 in the first period and didn’t even muster a single shot against Philipp Grubauer (16 saves) until Matt D’Agostini’s wrister with 15 minutes 33 seconds gone brought booming Bronx cheers from a crowd that has seen its share of futility this season. All Buffalo needed, though, at that juncture was Miller.
“They’re a skilled team. They get open. I just tried to keep myself in the crease a little more, waiting for those passes to happen,” Miller said. “It was just one of those nights where I could read it and it ended up working out for me most of the time.”
Washington recorded six shots on a fluid, efficient power play in the opening period, and each of the first three lines generated pressure at even strength. Alex Ovechkin, who was held without a goal for a third consecutive game, recorded six shots in the first period and went on to fire 12 total on Miller.
“We make great decisions with the puck. I think power play was working today, but we didn’t score,” said Ovechkin, who has a combined 24 shots in these past three games. “He was on top of his game tonight, and he carried them to [shootout] and give them victory.”
There’s always something unsettling for a team that so thoroughly dictates the pace of any period but fails to convert that energy into results on the scoreboard. It provides a lifeline for the opponent, and in this instance, the Sabres responded with more spunk at the start of the second.
Buffalo upped the physicality and, unlike the Capitals, created a net-front presence nearly every time it established offensive possession. It’s not a secret strategy but one that teams use with great effectiveness across the league and a method that worked for the Sabres.
With less than two minutes remaining in the second, it was the Sabres who struck first. Drew Stafford carved out real estate at the top of the crease and behind defenseman John Erskine, allowing him to redirect a shot by Christian Ehrhoff past Grubauer for a 1-0 Buffalo advantage at 18:18 of the second. Washington had outshot the Sabres 30-10 up to that point.
The Capitals finally dented the scoresheet in the third period. Mikhail Grabovski sent a pass from the right side boards across the ice to the left circle, where Brouwer kneeled to put full force behind a slap shot that blasted over Miller’s right shoulder to pull Washington even at 1 with 5:34 gone in the period.
As both teams pushed for another goal in the waning moments of regulation, Grubauer battled to ensure the Capitals would gain a point, fending off a bouncing puck and Matt Moulson hovering at the right post with just more than seven minutes remaining to keep the score tied.
While Washington couldn’t parlay its strong effort into a win, this wasn’t a loss that frustrated Coach Adam Oates.
“It was [Miller’s] night,” Oates said. “I can’t really complain on the night. We had 15 shots in every period. We did a lot of good things. Yeah, there’s always mistakes, but we played a pretty solid game. Obviously you want to win, but I’m not disappointed in the game.”
Capitals note: Brooks Laich sat out with a lingering groin injury again. He has missed 13 of the past 14 games.