Last 10: Buffalo 6-2-2; Washington 7-1-2
Season Series: Buffalo won the first two meetings between the clubs by a combined 9-3, but the Capitals beat the Sabres, 3-1, at Verizon Center on Dec. 30. They haven't played since then.
Big Story: Huge game for both teams, who are in a virtual tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. They both have 84 points, but Washington owns the non-shootout wins tiebreaker (36-30) and thus the loose grip on eighth heading into the game. The Sabres have won four in a row and are 17-5-5 since the All-Star break, when they were 14th in the East and 10 points out of eighth.
Sabres: Ryan Miller earned the NHL's Second Star of the Week honors for last week. He went 4-0 with a 1.26 goals-against average and .956 save percentage in beating the Lightning, Canadiens, Rangers and Wild. The Sabres won those four games by a combined 17-5 despite leading scorer Jason Pominville being held off the score sheet in two of them.
Despite the magnitude of Tuesday's game, the Sabres shouldn't expect a rah-rah speech from coach Lindy Ruff.
"I don't think I have to sell anything," Ruff told the Buffalo News Monday afternoon before the team departed for D.C. "They know where they're at. They understand where we can get to and how big the two points is. I shouldn't have to sell it this time of year."
Capitals:Alex Ovechkin finished one spot behind Miller in the Stars of the Week voting. He was named the NHL's Third Star of the Week for posting six goals and an assist in four games last week. The Capitals earned six out of a possible eight points to stay just ahead of the Sabres in eighth place.
Ovechkin is on fire of late with 7 goals in his last five games, 9 in his last seven, and 16 overall in the 25 he's played since his three-game suspension.
While coach Dale Hunter did not announce his starting goalie on Monday, the thought in D.C. is that it will be Braden Holtby, who is coming off a 28-save shutout of the Wild on Sunday. Holtby has started three of the last four games and has allowed only four goals in the process. He didn't start last Friday against Winnipeg, and the Caps blew a 3-0 lead before losing in overtime, 4-3.
"He's a battler," Hunter said of Holtby. "You see him handle the puck, I think he really helps our 'D' a lot in making decisions. It's always a risk-reward thing when goalies leave their net, but he does it very well."
Who's Hot: Ovechkin added another goal Sunday and is now up to 36 for the season. He has scored in 12 of the last 25 games, and the Capitals are 8-1-3 in those games. They are 4-8-1 in the 13 that he hasn't scored in.
Injury Report: Washington center Nicklas Backstrom is still out with a concussion, but he participated in his first full contact practice Monday. Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun has been dealing with a groin injury. … Buffalo could have Nathan Gerbe (upper body) and Patrick Kaleta (upper body) back in the lineup. Matt Ellis remains sidelined with a knee injury.
Stat Pack: Since the last meeting between these two teams (Dec. 30), Buffalo has won 20 games and has 47 points while Washington has won 20 games and has 46 points.
Puck Drop: Hunter called Tuesday's game "like the seventh game of the playoffs." Capitals winger Troy Brouwer expanded on that sentiment, according to the Washington Post:
"It's an exciting time of year, obviously a very important game and guys know this," Brouwer said. "We had a good showing (Sunday) night against Minnesota but we're playing a pretty tough team that's playing really well. We feel that this (Tuesday's game) is going to be a very big determination whether we're going to make the playoffs."