BUFFALO — For all the strides the Washington Capitals made in ending their seven-game losing streak over the weekend, that single victory wouldn’t mean much unless they could roll that momentum into continued success.
Tuesday night they put their ability to do so in doubt as they squandered three leads against the worst team in the NHL. But despite their missteps, the Capitals managed to secure a 5-4 win in overtime against the Buffalo Sabres.
Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin each recorded two goals and combined for the game-winner a minute into extra time, with the star winger setting up the offensive defenseman on a two-on-one to secure Washington’s first set of consecutive wins since Jan. 9 and 10.
The victory gave the sixth-place Capitals 56 points in the deadlocked Metropolitan Division, where four points separate the six teams from second to seventh place. But it was far from the way Washington would script a win, considering that it held the advantage in each of the three periods but still couldn’t find a way to keep the Sabres from mounting multiple rallies.
“The guys were really resilient tonight. I thought after we went up 2-0 we maybe kind of relaxed a little bit thinking it was going to be an easy game,” said winger Troy Brouwer, who snapped his personal 11-game scoring drought with a power-play goal in the second period. “They worked real hard, got themselves back in the game a few times, but we found a way to win tonight. That’s positive, but we also have to be a little bit nervous with giving up the lead three times in the game.”
In his second game since returning to the lineup from a groin injury, Ovechkin propelled the Capitals to a strong start while making up for lost time on the scoresheet with two goals within the first five minutes.
The first goal came on the power play, when Brouwer won a draw back toward the high slot where Ovechkin was all alone off the faceoff. Ovechkin made two quick strides and then twisted himself square with the net to put full force behind a slap shot that was in the back of the net before Sabres goaltender Jhonas Enroth (30 saves) could get set on the play.
Fifty-three seconds later Ovechkin struck again, though not in quite the same eye-popping fashion. The Capitals had worked to maintain possession and then sent the puck out to the top of the circles where Green put a wrister on net through traffic that included Ovechkin in front. Green’s shot deflected off Ovechkin’s pants and past Enroth to put Washington up 2-0 on its first three shots of the game.
It was quite the reversal of fortunes for the Capitals against Buffalo this season, as they managed to score as many goals in 4 minutes 42 seconds against Enroth as they did in two previous games combined against usual Sabres starter Ryan Miller. But after jumping out to that quick lead, the Capitals didn’t do much to sustain it.
“I think it’s also a little human nature. We score two goals, had a couple good shifts and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wow, this is too easy tonight,’ and you start making plays that you shouldn’t make,” Coach Adam Oates said. “As a coach you’re just trying on the bench, keep saying ‘Stay with the program,’ and you just see it unraveling a little bit. They get a cheapy, and before you know it it’s a ballgame.”
With just more than six minutes remaining in the first period, Braden Holtby made an initial save on Matt Moulson but then lost track of the puck as it lay loose by his right skate. At the same time, the Capitals failed to pick up Christian Ehrhoff as he entered the zone late, allowing the Buffalo defenseman to swoop in and chip the puck over Holtby’s pad and into the net to make it 2-1.
It wasn’t an easy outing for Holtby, with the defensive lapses coming frequently as the game pressed on, but he finished with 23 saves and managed to record wins in consecutive starts for the first time since late November.
“It was a great effort by us. They had a couple lucky kind of goals, and I thought we really deserved the ones we got,” Holtby said. “We kept with it, which was great.”
That goal was enough to give the Sabres life they carried into the second period, and 1:41 into the second Cody Hodgson scored his first of two goals on the power play to knot the score at 2.
Green scored his first goal of the night and 100th of his NHL career near the midway point of the second on a pretty wraparound to put Washington up 3-2.
Sixty-two seconds after Green put the Capitals ahead, carelessness in their end allowed the Sabres to come right back and tie the game once more on a goal by Philip Varone. The teams traded goals one more time in regulation, this time from Brouwer and Hodgson, before setting the stage for a third overtime session between these two squads this season.
As he rushed up ice in overtime, Ovechkin drew the attention of both Sabres in the defensive zone. Just when they were preoccupied by Ovechkin, Green began yelling to make sure his teammate knew he was joining the play and skating unopposed down the opposite side.
Ovechkin heard him and, rather than take the shot himself, sent a pass across, giving Green time to get a shot off before the Sabres could react.
“I knew that I would either have a rebound and hopefully pop it in or if Alex heard me — he made a great play,” Green said. “I know it’s tough for him not to shoot that puck, but what an unselfish play that was.”