The plan is pretty simple for the Washington Capitals at this stage of the season. They need wins if they want to maintain any hope of reaching the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re playing a top team or cellar dweller, whether they play a complete game or cobble one together.
Sunday night at Verizon Center they took care of business.
The Capitals have 25 points this season.
“You look at the standings right now and it’s still close, top to bottom, of that playoff race,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who finished with 27 saves. “To get those points, it’s huge, but you know, right now, we’ll treat every game like a playoff game. We have to win every one, or else we’re done, so that’s what we’re treating it like.”
After a beatdown at the hands of the Boston Bruins a day before, the Capitals needed a strong start. They got one. After 19 seconds, Alex Ovechkin scored off a faceoff. Nicklas Backstrom beat Cody Hodgson on the draw and Marcus Johansson tied up Thomas Vanek, allowing Ovechkin to corral the puck and fire a wrist shot that eluded Ryan Miller (20 saves).
Washington carried the lead into the second period, where the Sabres answered with a speedy tally when Hodgson beat Holtby between the legs to even the contest at 1.
For the next 10 minutes, though, the Capitals dominated and dictated the play against a woeful defense. With big defenseman Tyler Myers in the penalty box for holding, Washington’s potent power play peppered Miller.
After five rapid shots, Mike Ribeiro found Troy Brouwer in the slot and the winger rifled the puck into the top left corner to make it 2-1 at the 5 minute 6 second mark of the second.
The next contribution on the scoresheet came from a rather unlikely source. Jason Chimera recorded his first goal of the season, his first regular-season tally since April 2, 2012 against Tampa Bay, with 9:45 gone in the middle stanza.
Brouwer retrieved the puck behind the net and fended off Buffalo defenseman Mike Weber to make a backhanded pass out in front to a driving Chimera, who raced into the zone off the bench. He tapped the puck under Miller’s pads for a 3-1 advantage.
“Brouwer said I scared him into passing to me because I was yelling so much,” Chimera said with a laugh, grateful to score but more so for the Capitals to get the victory. “It’s a big, big win for us tonight and guys have a good feeling now and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Forty-three seconds later, with Miller out of position and Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff scrambling to try and play goaltender, Johansson swatted a loose puck in for a 4-1 advantage.
The Sabres did enough to make the contest interesting, though. Brian Flynn scored with less than seven minutes left in the second period to cut the Capitals’ lead to 4-2. Early in the third, Hodgson added his second goal of the night on the power play, closing the gap to 4-3.
With nearly 13 minutes gone in the third, Buffalo’s veteran agitator Steve Ott, who already targeted Backstrom and Ovechkin in the contest, challenged Steve Oleksy to fight. But once Oleksy dropped the gloves, Ott skated away and the rookie defenseman received a minor for roughing.
“Disappointing the call, quite honestly,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Steve Ott’s been doing that for years. If anything give them two each, he goes up — we got it on the video — he went up ‘Let’s go!’ and Stevie drops his gloves. And the ref . . . very frustrating.”
The call could have altered the course of the game because the Capitals were down to four defensemen for the penalty kill with Oleksy in the box and Tom Poti out of the game after aggravating a back injury in the second period.
Immediately after they thwarted the penalty, Mathieu Perreault gave the Capitals a valuable insurance goal and a 5-3 edge when he fired a shot that beat Miller blocker side.
With two valuable points tucked away from this stop at home between crucial trips, the Capitals brace for a grueling week with four challenging road games, including one at Eastern Conference leading Pittsburgh Tuesday and back-to-back contests against the Jets.
“It’s biggest week for us,” Ovechkin said. “How we going to play this week, we can end the season this week or we continue to fight for the playoffs.”