Alex Ovechkin unbuckled his chin strap and watched from the end of the bench as defenseman Rasmus Sandin went down clutching his left knee against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night. The Capital One Arena crowd fell silent as Sandin crumpled to the ice. He eventually climbed to his feet, skated back to the bench and hobbled down the tunnel in pain.
There were only six seconds remaining in the second period, and Ovechkin looked up at the scoreboard above the ice. What he saw was daunting: a two-goal deficit in a must-win game against a team tied with them in the standings. Several key players were banged up. So Ovechkin did what he has long done — he put the team on his back in the third period. He scored to pull the Capitals within one, then was on the power-play unit that equalized on Tom Wilson’s goal with 68 seconds left. By the time Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie scored in the shootout, the Capitals had a 5-4 win and two crucial points in the Eastern Conference wild-card chase.
“This time of the year, you don’t want to miss any games. . . . You just can’t,” said Ovechkin, whose team rallied from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2. “Huge win. Huge points.”
Sandin eventually returned to the game in the third period and fed Ovechkin on three consecutive one-timers in the final minute of overtime. But after each missed the net, the Capitals and Sabres — who each who entered the night with 71 points — went to the skills competition.
Ovechkin, who just a few hours before had been cleared to play with a lower-body injury that had forced him to a miss Tuesday night’s 5-3 loss to the New York Rangers, had done everything in his power to pull the Capitals back into Wednesday’s game after they had surrendered two goals on the Sabres’ first three shots.
He took his normal spot on the power play midway through the first period and he cocked his stick back as if he was about to uncork one of his signature slap shots. That was enough to fake out the Sabres, and Ovechkin instead passed the puck into the crease. It led to Oshie’s goal to trim the deficit to 2-1. On his next shift, Ovechkin darted across the ice to deliver a crushing check, stole the puck and fed Sandin for another look at the net. Even though he didn’t get a shot off, the Capitals kept rushing the net throughout the night, desperate not to surrender an inch in a game they had to have.
“Every game has to be a playoff mentality for us,” Oshie said. “There was some desperation out there that you typically see in the postseason.”
Washington had felt Buffalo’s offensive power in a 7-4 road loss late last month, and it didn’t take long for the Sabres to jump on goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who was making his first start since Feb. 24.
Ilya Lyubushkin beat Lindgren with a wrister that got through traffic to make it 1-0 just under five minutes into the game. The visitors took a 2-0 lead after rookie JJ Peterka scored on an odd-man rush at 8:50 of the period.
After Oshie scored on the power play a little more than a minute later, the Capitals followed with one of their best possessions of the night — which included a near tip-in by Oshie that would have tied the game. But when the puck squirted out to the blue line, Capitals winger Conor Sheary was tied up with Buffalo forward Casey Mittelstadt in a race for the puck. Both players fell to their knees — Sheary and the Capitals looked in vain for a penalty — while Tyson Jost picked up the loose puck and beat Lindgren with a wrister to put Washington in a two-goal hole for the second consecutive night.
“Coach let me battle through that. After that first period, you could that tell maybe I wasn’t feeling my best, but he let me stay in, and I’m very appreciative of that. I was able to fight through it,” Lindgren said.
The Capitals recorded the first nine shots of the third period and pulled within 3-2 after Kuznetsov scored just 92 seconds into the frame. But Washington struggled to counter Buffalo’s superior speed; even as Sandin returned to the ice early in the third period, Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons scored to push the lead to 4-2 with 14:38 left in regulation.
Ovechkin pulled Washington within 4-3 with a tip-in with 9:30 remaining. Washington earned a power play in the final two minutes after an Alex Tuch penalty, and Wilson tied the game off a feed from Backstrom with 1:08 remaining.
About 45 minutes later, Ovechkin was one of the last players to leave the Capitals’ locker room after the victory. He autographed a few sticks and played with his son. Wilson stuck around, too, sharing a few laughs with the captain after they had found a way to win.
“There’s nothing like having Ovi around in the room,” Wilson said. “He’s such a presence. When he’s not there, you can feel it for sure. He definitely brought some life.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ win:
Milano sits again
Forward Sonny Milano missed a second consecutive game with a non-covid illness. That forced Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette to shuffle his lines for a second straight night, moving Sheary to the third line alongside Dylan Strome and Oshie, while Aliaksei Protas played for a second consecutive night on the fourth line with Nic Dowd and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
The Capitals entered the night with a 10.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to HockeyReference.com, sitting five points behind the New York Islanders (76 points) for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
While the Islanders were scheduled to play later Wednesday night against the Anaheim Ducks, the Capitals’ win pulled them even with the Florida Panthers at 73 points; the Panthers have two games in hand and will play Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens. Still nipping at the heels of Washington are the Sabres (72 points), Ottawa Senators (70 points) and the Detroit Red Wings (69 points); all three of those teams have two games in hand over the Capitals.