Two months of anguish had piled onto Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich’s shoulders, the burden of a 26-game goal drought. He had been demoted to the fourth line and scratched for the first time since his sophomore season. He had begun working out before practice, earlier each day, and studying extra film, as though the streak could be drilled into submission. He told himself to relax. Through sleepless nights, it did not seem to help.
But now, as Laich stretched his arms wide and tilted his head back, all that weight ascended into the Verizon Center rafters. He leaned against into the boards, hugged by forward Tom Wilson, his partner for all those pre-practice shooting sessions. Amid the arena’s din, as he celebrated his second-period goal in Saturday night’s 6-1 mauling of the Buffalo Sabres, Wilson screamed into Laich’s ear, “Enjoy it.” Laich’s mind flashed to his first career NHL goal. He just grinned through his mouthguard, followed Wilson’s advice and basked in the moment.
“Something I kept telling myself was that tough times don’t last but tough people do,” Laich said. “It was a couple dark days, but hopefully [I’m] back in the saddle now.”
Laich’s wrist shot, his first goal since Jan. 7 in Toronto, eventually proved superfluous for the Capitals, who allowed a season-low 17 shots, produced a season-high 45 and scored their most lopsided victory of the season, with six goals from six different parties. By then, forward Jay Beagle had already notched two points, forward Alex Ovechkin had stormed back from injury with a power-play goal and center Nicklas Backstrom had inched within one assist of the franchise lead. But this particular moment belonged to Laich.
“I threw the monkey right into section 300 there off his back,” Wilson said. “I think he’s probably the happiest guy in D.C. tonight.”
Soon, the Capitals joined in the revelry, awarded an extra day off by Coach Barry Trotz after hammering the league’s worst team. The Sabres had long since abandoned hope of reaching the playoffs, turning their attention to stockpiling assets and waiting for good fortune in the draft lottery, with superstar prospect Connor McDavid the shimmering prize. That meant handing the keys to a group of unknowns, and this had some Capitals players concerned, keenly aware their opponents had little to lose.
Those concerns were realized less than three minutes in, when Buffalo forward Marcus Foligno carried the puck around the net and found linemate Johan Larsson in the slot, invisible with an unobstructed path toward goaltender Braden Holtby. Two Capitals converged onto Foligno, but the forward flung the puck toward Larsson before pressure arrived. In one smooth motion, Larsson pivoted and, like swinging a golf club in the sand, uppercutted the shot into the top-right corner.
The Capitals soon marshaled their response, once again on the shoulders of their newest member. Curtis Glencross had provided Washington’s only goal during Thursday’s loss against the Minnesota Wild, and Saturday he found room in front of the net as Mike Green snaked around the goal. Green found Glencross with a feed for his second goal in three games with his new club.
“That’s a pretty crafty pass,” Glencross said. “I’ve seen a lot of highlights of him making nice passes like that, and I wanted to just get open. I had a feeling he’d find me.”
The levees opened early into the second period and drowned Sabres goaltender Matt Hackett, cutting short his 11th start over the past three seasons. Less than six minutes in, Beagle gathered an errant rebound, drifted to his left, waited patiently and scooped the puck into the top shelf for his 10th tally of the season, reaching the double-digit personal goal he had set for himself while launching 200 pucks each afternoon last summer, alone in his Calgary backyard.
Ovechkin, who only decided to play after passing through warmups without pain, added to the onslaught on the power play after forward Brian Gionata moved into the penalty box for boarding, and his league-leading 44th goal chased Hackett to the bench. Backstrom’s assist pushed him past Ovechkin on the franchise list with 418, one shy of Michal Pivonka, and the alternate captain later tied the mark late in the third period.
Buffalo Coach Ted Nolan replaced Hackett with Anders Lindback, who didn’t fare much better in allowing third-period goals from forward Joel Ward on the power play and forward Marcus Johansson at even strength, both on rebounds. But first came Laich, stepping into the slot and flinging a wrister toward the cage, a long-awaited rocket of relief.