BUFFALO — After witnessing breakdowns on breakouts, lack of execution through the neutral zone and unsteady play up and down the lineup, Washington Capitals Coach Todd Reirden was frustrated. And in the wake of a 5-2 loss Saturday to the Buffalo Sabres that wrapped up a six-game road trip at 3-3, he wasn’t hesitant to offer his take on the state of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“That trip kind of sums up our game overall for the last little while — the inconsistency,” he said. “We had a couple games on this trip where we had everyone all-in and really solid team effort. And tonight I didn’t feel like that was the case. It is a too difficult league to win if you don’t have everyone playing to their best ability, so that is something that we are going to need [Sunday] to have success.”
The Capitals return home Sunday for a matinee against the New York Rangers.
Washington fell into an early hole against the Sabres when Buffalo forward Jason Pominville took a no-look pass from Jeff Skinner and beat Braden Holtby for the game’s first goal less than four minutes in. Buffalo tacked on its second goal at 12:51 from forward Sam Reinhart, who slipped behind the defense off a broken play at center ice to beat Holtby.
Alex Ovechkin cut the margin in half early in the second, scoring his NHL-best 44th goal on a breakaway 2:28 into the period. The Capitals’ captain extended his goal-scoring streak to five games, with six goals in that span. It marked the 13th time in his career that Ovechkin has recorded a five-game goal streak, the most by any player since his debut in 2005.
Soon after Ovechkin’s goal, Buffalo was forced to play without Skinner, its leading scorer, for the rest of the second period after newly acquired Carl Hagelin was called for tripping at 4:42. Skinner appeared to hurt his left leg and was unable to walk down the team tunnel under his own power, but he returned to the ice in the third period.
The Capitals were unable to take advantage of Skinner’s absence and yielded a power-play goal to Rasmus Dahlin with 31 seconds remaining in the period.
Andre Burakovsky tipped in a shot from Christian Djoos to trim the margin back to one goal early in the third, but Reinhart scored his second less than two minutes later and completed a hat trick with an empty-netter in the final minute.
Burakovsky’s goal was his eighth of the season.
“It has been a long road trip, and obviously everyone is getting tired at the end here. But I think we have to find a way to play a solid game for 60 minutes — not just 25 or whatever,” Burakovsky said. “Just get back on the horse tomorrow and find a way.”
Holtby stopped 33 shots while allowing four or more goals for the sixth time in his past 13 games. Saturday’s performance came a game after he stopped 40 of 42 shots in Thursday’s 3-2 win at the Toronto Maple Leafs, the second-most saves he has recorded in a game this season.
Reirden did see some positives on the trip.
“We had some really good team efforts,” he said. “If you break down a San Jose game or L.A. game or just looking at different things that we did well as the trip went on in Toronto, we had contributions from everybody. Not necessarily goals and assists, but we had fourth-line shifts where they are spending time in the offensive zone. We had big penalty kills and big power-play goals and contributions from everybody up and down the lineup. We didn’t have that today, so we are not going to have the success we need to if we don’t.”
Saturday marked Hagelin’s Washington debut after Thursday’s trade from Los Angeles. Hagelin skated on the fourth line centered by Nic Dowd with Chandler Stephenson. He also played on the penalty kill.
“It was exciting,” Hagelin said. “Obviously you want to get the win there on your first game and didn’t happen today. But the good thing is we play tomorrow, and I am excited about that.”
Defenseman Nick Jensen, acquired Friday from the Detroit Red Wings, was a healthy scratch along with Dmitrij Jaskin and Travis Boyd. Reirden said Saturday morning that Jensen should play Sunday against the Rangers.
Jensen joined the Capitals late Friday night and participated in the team’s warmups and all meetings before Saturday’s loss.
“I am excited going from one great organization to the next and happy to be here and looking to help out anyway I can,” Jensen said before the game.
With the Capitals executing two trades ahead of Monday’s trade deadline, they have the maximum of 23 players on their roster and remain tight against the salary cap, so any other additions would require a corresponding move.