The Washington Capitals set out goals for Friday night: A fast start and a strong performance that would build off the previous outing. A little redemption against the Buffalo Sabres, who had embarrassed them twice this season, wouldn’t hurt either.
In their 3-1 win, the Capitals accomplished those objectives. Washington withstood a strong surge from the Sabres and, thanks to a pair of goals by Alex Ovechkin and a 25-save performance by Tomas Vokoun, held on for a victory that pushed them three points ahead of their foes and just one point out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Washington (19-15-2) heads to Columbus for Saturday’s game having won two straight and starting to show signs of the consistency that the group has sought for the last two months.
“Good effort tonight again, good emotion in the first period,” said Vokoun, who has won consecutive games. “For us it’s a big win and they were behind us. We want to keep them there.”
The Capitals got off to a purposeful start and for a second straight game took an early lead. With Mike Weber in the box for boarding following a questionable hit on Jason Chimera, a centering attempt by Ovechkin went off the stick of Buffalo defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and into the net.
The lucky bounce put the Capitals ahead 1-0 just 1 minute 42 seconds into the first. Washington fueled cycles deep in the offensive zone and maintained its intensity early as the contest took a physical tone. Chimera and Weber fought after the latter’s hit and later in the first Troy Brouwer faced off against Ehrhoff, who was injured in the fracas and did not return to the game.
By the end of the period, the Capitals held a 11-2 edge in shots.
“That’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to win,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think everybody did a great job tonight. I think we were working hard, skating, stuff like that. Good things going to happen if you do that.”
Washington added to its lead with a demonstration of passing efficiency less than four minutes into the second period. Ovechkin began a tic-tac-toe progression, skating into the offensive zone and passing to the left wall, where Roman Hamrlik sent the puck to Alexander Semin in the right faceoff circle.
Semin, who started the rush when he intercepted a pass in the defensive zone, connected across the middle with Backstrom, who fired to make it 2-0. It was Backstrom’s 13th goal this season and 100th of his NHL career.
Once the two-goal edge was established, though, the Sabres (17-17-3) began to press, their effort becoming more furious with each passing minute. Buffalo started winning battles along the boards and in the corners to get better scoring chances as its defensemen helped force the play up ice.
Washington was caught in its own end and although Vokoun made two initial saves, Jochen Hecht put the Sabres on the board 15:02 into the second when he fired a rebound in an open cage to make it 2-1.
Once they cut Washington’s advantage in half, the Sabres doubled their intensity. Buffalo buzzed around Vokoun for repeated chances that the veteran netminder turned aside.
“It’s hard for a goalie that didn’t get much work early and not many shots and stuff, but he’s a pro,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “He was ready in the second when they put the surge on there and made some big stops for us.”
Buffalo controlled the play into the third, holding the Capitals to just two shots on goal in the first 13 minutes of the period. On its third shot, however, Washington awoke. Backstrom and Ovechkin broke free for a two-on-one and the two pillars of the franchise combined to relieve the pressure. Backstrom sent a perfect saucer pass from the right wing to the left where Ovechkin buried the opportunity to make it 3-1 with just less than six minutes remaining.
“We just have to play it simple and you can see how we score. Goals we make are pretty plays but they were simple plays. We just have to continue what we do right now,” Ovechkin said. “It’s nice when you make some pretty plays and you score the goals, especially when the team needs it. It’s kind of good.”
Capitals notes: Cody Eakin was recalled by the team late Friday night and will make the trip to Columbus. To fit Eakin on the active roster, defenseman Mike Green was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Nov. 11. Green missed a 22nd consecutive game Friday with a strained right groin muscle. He is not expected to play against Columbus but will make the trip to work out with the team. . . .
General Manager George McPhee said top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov should be in the NHL during the 2012-13 season. “He’s ready to play here and he needs to play in a better league,” McPhee said. “Sometimes when you’re not playing at the highest level you can develop bad habits. We don’t want that stuff to become ingrained.”