On any other night before the coronavirus pandemic, Capital One Arena would have been a sea of emotion and affection for the franchise pillar. But this was the final home game the Capitals would be playing before allowing fans back into the building at 10 percent capacity this month — and the moving ceremony instead took place in the emptiness of tarped-over seats.
When the celebration ended, a contest against the struggling Sabres awaited, apparently part of the recipe for a celebratory night to continue.
But Backstrom, a 14-year veteran, knows as well as anyone that the difference between a win and a loss in the NHL can be shades of gray. The Capitals’ pregame emotion Thursday did not extend to the 60 minutes of hockey that followed, leading to a 5-2 loss that ended a three-game winning streak on what will otherwise be remembered as the night Backstrom became the second Washington player — after his longtime teammate Alex Ovechkin — to hit the millennium mark in games played.
“It’s a big day for [Backstrom],” Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov said. “We’d like to get a win, but we did not. Still it’s a big day for him. We have to move on and forget about it.”
It marked just the 11th win of the season for Buffalo, which scored four goals on 14 shots through the first 26 minutes of the game against Washington goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who was pulled late in the second period in favor of 39-year-old backup Craig Anderson after the Sabres had taken a 4-2 lead. Washington’s offense, which erupted for 18 goals over the previous three games, could not make up that ground.
On the night he joined Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby to become just the second active player to reach the 1,000-game mark with at least 700 assists, Backstrom did finish with a secondary assist Thursday — his team-leading 31st assist of the season — on a goal by newly acquired forward Anthony Mantha that pulled Washington within 3-2 midway through the second period. But Backstrom was also penalized twice, and the Capitals finished with 15 giveaways in one of their sloppiest performances of the season.
“There’s no easy games,” Washington forward Lars Eller said. “We were lacking a little bit of compete level, and poor decision-making at times just cost us today.”
Backstrom picked up the game’s first penalty midway through the first period on an interference call, but the Sabres managed just one shot during the power play. Buffalo kept up the pressure on Vanecek — who earned the start after the Capitals announced earlier Thursday that Ilya Samsonov is day-to-day with an upper-body injury — and the Sabres took a 1-0 lead with 70 seconds left as Sam Reinhart redirected a shot from Dylan Cozens.
Washington had entered the night having scored in nine consecutive periods, and Orlov kept the streak alive on an equalizer with 22 seconds left in the first period, rocketing an assist from T.J. Oshie past Buffalo goalie Dustin Tokarski.
Buffalo has posted points in eight of its past 10 games and came out firing to begin the second period. Forward Victor Olofsson made it 2-1 with a wrister from the right circle just 96 seconds into the frame, and Casey Mittelstadt extended the lead to 3-1 by sniping a shot that beat Vanecek in the top left corner of the net with 14:18 remaining. A minute later, Oloffson nearly added to the lead when he snapped another shot off the post.
“They were on their toes tonight. They were forcing the issue. We weren’t at that speed or at that gear,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said.
Mantha, who had a goal and an assist in his Capitals debut Tuesday, again showed the kind of offense that his new teammates had raved about after he was acquired from Detroit before Monday’s trade deadline. His second goal in as many games came with 10:01 left in the second period off a delayed penalty, when Mantha beat Tokarski off an assist from defenseman John Carlson.
Less than four minutes later, after giving up another goal to Buffalo’s Anders Bjork that gave the Sabres a 4-2 lead, Vanecek was replaced by backup Anderson. It marked the third time Vanecek had been pulled this season, and Anderson, who has appeared just three times this year, did his best to keep the Sabres at bay as Washington tried to climb back into the game.
There were chances. The Capitals went on the power play midway through the third period after Rasmus Dahlin was called for hooking but couldn’t convert. Washington opened the third period by outshooting the Sabres 12-2, including a wrister from Zdeno Chara that rattled off the post, and frustrations boiled over when Washington’s Tom Wilson and Buffalo’s Matthew Irwin were both called for roughing after wrestling each other near the boards. And Backstrom was called for a penalty with 4:22 left, putting a final damper on what began as a memorable night.
“Once we get away from this, I don’t think we’re going to remember the loss particularly,” Eller said. “We’ll remember all the other stuff we had fun with and the ceremony and all the other stuff that went on today, I think. At the end of the day, we’ll remember that more than the loss. But right now, it stinks.”