"This time of the year, we want to be getting to the next level, and we are staying average," Holtby said. "We got to find a way to push forward here. Play the game [like we did] tonight, [and] we are not going to win any more than we lose, and that's not a recipe for the success we want to have."
The Capitals played a lackluster first 40 minutes against the Sabres, looking lost throughout the first two periods. Although the Capitals rallied in a strong third period, scoring twice to force overtime, the Sabres ultimately prevailed in the seventh round of the shootout.
Dominik Kahun had the game-winner with a backhanded shot that got past Holtby, before Richard Panik failed to beat Linus Ullmark with a wrist shot on the other end of the ice. Forced to settle for one standings point after scrambling to earn it, the Capitals (41-20-8, 90 points) moved a point ahead of Philadelphia atop the Metropolitan Division, but the Flyers (41-20-7, 89 points) have a game in hand. The Capitals are 15-14-3 since Dec. 23 and 2-2-2 in their past six games.
“Got to play every minute, every moment of the game,” Holtby said. “Tonight we played parts of it. It’s frustrating that way. Like we’ve said, adversity is something that can make you stronger, but it seems like it is taking some time to make us stronger. It’s time now to get going. That comes from our leadership group on out, and it’s time to push forward.”
Trailing 2-0, the Capitals began their rally early in the third period when Alex Ovechkin scored his 48th goal of the season. The captain made a spectacular toe-drag move off a faceoff to free himself in front of the Buffalo net and beat Ullmark 3:33 into the period.
Ovechkin’s strike gave him 706 goals for his career, leaving him two behind Mike Gartner for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list. And it tied him with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the most in the league this season.
Dmitry Orlov tied the score at 2 with 6:49 left in regulation with a goal that didn’t require as much skill. Orlov’s shot from the point deflected off the skate of Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and into the net for his first goal since Dec. 21, snapping a 31-game drought.
“Oh, just lucky goal, but it was huge for us,” Orlov said. “It tied the game, and I think all third period there was a lot of [opportunities]. . . . I think Holts today was outstanding. Kept us in the game.”
The Sabres seemed to spoil the surge with 2:48 left in the third period, but Brandon Montour’s goal was waved off for goaltender interference after Buffalo forward Jeff Skinner was ruled to have made contact with Holtby’s stick as he skated past.
The Sabres didn’t challenge the call, and the score remained tied.
The Capitals had another narrow escape in overtime, when Orlov was called for tripping in the offensive zone 2:10 into the extra period, giving the Sabres a four-on-three advantage. But Holtby held his ground, turning aside three prime scoring chances for the Sabres.
“Obviously, we want to take two points,” Ovechkin said, “but it is what it is. Great battle at the end and great kill in overtime. Obviously, in the shootout it is a lottery.”
The Sabres had lost their previous six games in regulation, which made the Capitals’ slow start in the heat of a tight division race all the more troubling.
Forward Victor Olofsson opened the scoring for Buffalo 4:53 into the first period, beating Holtby with a snipe to his glove side for his 20th goal. It was the first time in four games the Capitals allowed the first goal.
The deficit doubled 53 seconds into the second period, when Jack Eichel scored on the power play for his 36th goal of the season. Washington has allowed at least one power-play goal in five consecutive games.
The Capitals’ best early chance came when Johan Larsson was called for slashing at 14:43 of the first period, giving Washington a crack at Buffalo’s NHL-worst penalty kill. But the Capitals couldn’t deliver, and the Sabres stayed out of the penalty box for the rest of the night.
“We know right now that points . . . are pretty irrelevant for what we want to accomplish,” Holtby said. “We look at how we are playing, how we are setting up games, how we are starting, how we are finishing.
“If you look at the process that way, you are going to get a lot of points, so right now we just got to keep working, keep pushing ourselves even harder.”