By Alex Ovechkin’s new standards, Saturday night’s performance fell short. He had scored three goals in each of his previous two games, but as he launched one puck after another at the net, only one got past Buffalo goaltender Carter Hutton.
“I have pretty good chances, but today it was not my day,” Ovechkin said. “You can’t score every night.”
Except that he has scored in six straight games and now has 29 goals in 32 games, nearly a goal per night. And when it mattered most, in the fourth round of a shootout, Ovechkin delivered again. He beat Hutton, then watched Pheonix Copley make the save on Jason Pominville at the other end of the ice, and he celebrated just as fiercely as he had for his hat tricks.
Despite a poor night for Washington’s special teams — they surrendered two power-play goals and another score just after a penalty expired — the Capitals were still able to earn at least one standings point by forcing overtime. For the second time in as many nights, it took going to a shootout to decide the game, and Washington’s skill again proved to be superior. The Capitals beat the Buffalo Sabres, 4-3, for their fifth straight win, and their captain led the way.
“We’ve got to as a team really rally around that,” forward Brett Connolly said. “When he’s playing that well, you want to have guys really look at that and take it to another level and fall in behind that because he’s playing that well and playing hard and playing with a lot of detail. It’s good to see from him.”
Every time Ovechkin got anywhere near the puck, anticipation coursed though Capital One Arena. No player has recorded hat tricks in three straight games, and the home crowd hoped for history. When Ovechkin finally found some time and space 13:46 into the second period, he capitalized, skating into the high slot and ripping a slap shot past Hutton. That tied things at 3, and it also extended Ovechkin’s point streak to a career-high 14 games.
Though Ovechkin’s streak of hat tricks was snapped, it wasn’t for lack of trying — he finished regulation with a game-high eight shots on goal. Almost all of Ovechkin’s production during that stretch had come at even strength, and while that makes this string of scoring more impressive, he and the Capitals were unable to capitalize on the power play against the Sabres. In four man-advantage opportunities, Washington tallied seven shots on goal but struggled to challenge Hutton with difficult saves.
Playing their second game in as many nights, the Capitals made a slight but significant tweak to the lineup. After Washington allowed three power-play goals against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night, Coach Todd Reirden wanted to get winger Chandler Stephenson back into the lineup because he’s one of the team’s top penalty-killing forwards. But to play Stephenson, Reirden scratched Dmitrij Jaskin, breaking up a fourth line that had scored in four straight games. The trio of Jaskin, Travis Boyd and center Nic Dowd had been a momentum-driver during the winning streak.
The Capitals’ penalty kill has had mixed results this season. It had gone three straight games without allowing a man-advantage goal before struggling against the Hurricanes, and the personnel change didn’t fix much against the Sabres. Defenseman Michal Kempny was penalized for high-sticking just 41 seconds into the game, and just as Buffalo’s power play expired, captain Jack Eichel smacked in a rebound for the first goal of the game.
A loud “Let’s go, Buffalo” chant rang through Capital One Arena. The Sabres were the NHL’s worst team last season, but years of drafting high have paid off with a team that came into Saturday’s meeting with one standings point more than the Capitals and in third place in the Atlantic Division in large part because of its young talent.
Washington tied the game just 58 seconds after Eichel’s goal. Hutton misplayed a puck behind his net, and forward Devante Smith-Pelly forced a turnover and then fed Connolly, who had an open net to shoot at. Connolly, an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, has three goals and three assists in his past six games, on pace for a career year.
The Capitals took a lead 9:41 into the first, when center Evgeny Kuznetsov set up Jakub Vrana’s one-timer in the high slot. That marked Vrana’s 10th goal, and after he scored 13 goals as a rookie, he’s on pace to comfortably eclipse that in his second season.
But Washington’s leaky penalty kill proved troublesome in the second period. Kempny was called for hooking 50 seconds into the frame, and Eichel again scored, tying the game. Less than four minutes later, defenseman Madison Bowey went to the penalty box for hooking, and it took the Sabres just 71 seconds to take the lead with a goal from Rasmus Dahlin off a rebound.
“We’ve got to continue to get better there,” Reirden said of the penalty kill. “We had a stretch where we were doing a better job, and now it’s finding its way, multiple ways, different ways into our net. That’s not a winning recipe for success, to give up three last night and then two and then one at the end [of another power play] tonight. It’s an area that we’ve got to work on here while we’ve got some practice time this week.”
For a second straight contest, however, Washington was able to overcome its own ineffective special teams to get to overtime. And just like every other win this season, Ovechkin’s name was on the score sheet, though maybe not as much as he would have liked.
“It would be nice to get another [hat trick] or whatever,” Ovechkin said. “But nothing you can do about it.”