Twice in the final 2 minutes 7 seconds of regulation Sunday afternoon, the Washington Capitals thought they had captured their third consecutive victory. Twice they had to reset after celebrations, lowering their arms and acknowledging they were still deadlocked in a tie with the worst team in hockey.
The Capitals would not get the chance to savor a win as they fell to the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1, at Verizon Center on a shootout goal by Cody Hodgson. Washington now holds the dubious distinction of being just the second team to lose twice this season to the Sabres, who had not won a road game since Nov. 5.
“We weren’t on the top of our game at all,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We didn’t have a good game at all, I think, and we maybe didn’t deserve [a win] either.”
Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller again was stellar against the Capitals, making 28 saves to outlast Capitals rookie Philipp Grubauer, who finished with 30 saves in his 11th start in 16 games.
None of Miller’s stops was more spectacular than when he reached his stick above the goal line to knock away a shot by Mikhail Grabovski that appeared destined for the open net with 2:07 left in regulation. There was a collective gasp from the crowd as Miller composed himself after the save, and Alex Ovechkin brought his arms back down to his sides, realizing his teammate didn’t score.
“That’s one of those ones where you’re just completely out of options,” said Miller, who has stopped 77 of the 79 shots he has faced from the Capitals in the teams’ two meetings this year. “I knew I was in trouble. I saw him kind of reload and get in position. . . . More often than not those guys are going to score. I don’t think he got quite all of it, and he gave me time to put a plate on it.”
Then with 53 seconds remaining Karl Alzner teed up a shot from the point, and the puck found its way past Miller to the back of the net, but Backstrom had been called for tripping before the shot, negating the goal and putting the home team on the penalty kill.
But long before the drama of the final minutes of regulation unfolded, Washington appeared to fall into the trap Coach Adam Oates had warned about before the game. The Sabres, Oates said, have an ability to lull opponents to sleep with a sometimes maddeningly passive game that takes great pride in deflecting and tipping shots before they can pose a problem for Miller.
“We didn’t come out with enough energy,” Jason Chimera said. “They play kind of a boring style of game; we had way too many turnovers, I thought. . . . It’s one of those games you try to find some energy, and every time you try to find it you do too much.”
The Capitals took a 1-0 lead 11:01 into the first period, but it wasn’t even on a goal they scored themselves. On a third-line rush, Chimera lugged the puck down the left-wing boards as Marcus Johansson drove the net while marked by Sabres forward Brian Flynn. When Chimera threw the puck on net, it deflected off Flynn’s stick blade and in.
Aside from that fluky play, the Capitals had little to be pleased with. They turned over the puck, committed icings when they weren’t under duress and didn’t have the poise to build anything against a patient Buffalo team that would sit back and wait for them to make mistakes.
Late in the first period, Capitals rookie Tom Wilson received a minor penalty for charging when he crunched Sabres defenseman Jamie McBain along the blue line. The visitors took advantage. Tyler Ennis scored on the ensuing power play when he gathered a rebound undetected and fired a shot high as Grubauer scrambled to come across the crease to make it 1-1 with 18:09 gone in the opening period.
From there, the teams plodded through the game. Washington gave the Sabres ample opportunity to dislodge the tie, taking three minor penalties in the second period.
But all those opportunities did was make Ennis’s power-play goal in the first period appear more of an anomaly. Buffalo derailed its own opportunities and only managed two shots in those six minutes on the man advantage. The Capitals’ top-ranked power play wasn’t any better when presented with a chance early in the third, making mistakes that prevented the usually efficient unit from generating anything against Miller.
“They did a great job locking it down. They played well,” Alzner said. “They lull you to sleep. They don’t play fancy. They play a hard-hat type of game. They get the win sometimes.”