WASHINGTON -- Every once in a while even the most disciplined team will have a lapse in judgment. The Buffalo Sabres had two on Wednesday night -- at the absolute worst times and against the absolute worst team.
Word to the wise: When you trail the Washington Capitals by one goal in the third period, you don't want to give Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Brendan Morrison a 5-on-3. The Sabres did, and it cost them dearly in a 5-2 loss at the Verizon Center.
Backstrom scored his second of the night on the 5-on-3 and Ovechkin's rocket past Ryan Miller 75 seconds later during the 5-on-4 power play gave the Capitals all the cushion they needed.
Washington won the battle of first-place teams while becoming only the second team this season to score that many goals on Sabres' goalie Ryan Miller, a leading candidate for the Hart and Vezina Trophies.
Miller wound up with 33 saves, but that wasn't enough as the Capitals head into the two-day Christmas break trailing the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins by one point in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres are still first in the Northeast Division, four points ahead of the Boston Bruins.
"If we get one or two on the power play, we're usually going to win," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "That was our chance to really take advantage of the game. Bruce (Boudreau) had a timeout there and made it clear what we had to do. We went out and executed it."
Tomas Fleischmann drew both of the penalties that set up the 5-on-3. Craig Rivet hooked him right in front of the penalty box door, and 69 seconds later Paul Gaustad tripped him in the attacking zone.
Boudreau called his timeout to devise a play for the 5-on-3. He put Ovechkin down low and kept Morrison and Green up top to keep a righty and a lefty at the points. Miller said it was a different look, one the Sabres were not expecting.
Semin got the puck below the left circle and held it patiently, waiting for a passing lane to open up. When it did, he slid a hard pass to the slot that streaked past Ovechkin's stick and right to Backstrom. His shot from the goal line hit off Miller and bounded into the net with 9:05 to play.
"They switched it up with Ovechkin in front for a different look, and we probably gave them too much time above the goal line to set it up," Miller said. "We probably want to pressure them a little bit more."
With the Capitals' still on the power play, Green's shot hit Brooks Laich's skate and caromed out to Ovechkin in the left circle. He wasted no time, rifling a shot that screamed past Miller's blocker and nearly cut right through the netting.
"I think we used the momentum with the 5-on-3 and the crowd to get the other goal," Boudreau said.
As much as the game turned on that 5-on-3, the Capitals gave themselves an advantage by playing what Boudreau called a perfect first period. They scored two goals on their first three shots to take a 2-0 lead just 6:47 into the contest. The last time these teams met, exactly two weeks ago in Buffalo, Miller made 35 saves for his fourth shutout of the season.
"I think he's one of those goalies that feeds off his team as the game goes on," said Green, who scored the second goal when his point shot deflected off Derek Roy's stick after Backstrom scored the first on a one-timer 1:18 into the game. "If you don't score, he makes big saves at the end of the game. It was important that we got after him and we did. That's why we were successful."
The Sabres blamed themselves. Forward Tim Connolly had the game's first shot on goal 31 seconds in, but Buffalo didn't test Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth (32 saves) again until Matt Ellis bounced a 60-footer on him nearly 17 minutes later.
"We didn't go to work," a steamed coach Lindy Ruff said. "If you play like that, you have no chance to win in this League. We weren't on the puck. We didn't compete for pucks. We just decided not to show up in the first period. It was shocking. I can't hide it."
They showed up in the second and got rewarded when Gaustad cashed in on a 2-on-1 with Roy 5:04 into the period. However, less than six minutes later Brendan Morrison broke out of his scoring slump with a nifty goal.
Morrison, who hadn't scored in nine games, corralled a rebound, settled the puck at his feet and roofed it with a between-the-legs shot, something he said he hadn't done in 17 years. It was 3-1 Caps with 9:12 left in the second.
"I figured I was due pretty soon here," Morrison said.
Roughly two minutes later, Connolly ended an even longer scoring drought by deflecting Steve Montador's point shot past Neuvirth for his first goal in 14 games. Now it was 3-2 entering the third period. It was a game.
"If you keep creating havoc they are going to take penalties it doesn't matter what team it is," Green said.
Things tightened up until Rivet was sent off for hooking Fleischmann, a penalty Miller disagreed with.
"It was two guys battling," Miller said. "I didn't think he really hooked them other than on top of the stick. I have heard from refs that that is perfectly legal. I didn't see anything up around the waist."
Gaustad didn't help matters when he tripped Fleischmann in the Caps' attacking zone to set up the 5-on-3. Boudreau called his timeout, fooled the Sabres by putting Ovechkin down low, and it didn't take long for Washington to seal it.
"If we want to run with the big dogs we're going to have to show a lot more composure and a lot more attention to detail," Miller said. "I'll just call it like it is."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Nicklas Backstrom (13) ASST: Alex Ovechkin (19), Alexander Semin (16)|
1 - 0 WSH
|Mike Green (7) ASST: Eric Fehr (10), Chris Clark (11)|
2 - 0 WSH
|Paul Gaustad (7) ASST: Derek Roy (20), Jason Pominville (15)|
2 - 1 WSH
|Brendan Morrison (10) ASST: Tomas Fleischmann (9), Mike Knuble (12)|
3 - 1 WSH
|Tim Connolly (7) ASST: Steve Montador (8), Michael Grier (4)|
3 - 2 WSH
|PPG - Nicklas Backstrom (14) ASST: Alexander Semin (17), Alex Ovechkin (20)|
4 - 2 WSH
|PPG - Alex Ovechkin (24) ASST: Brooks Laich (17), Mike Green (28)|
5 - 2 WSH
|Power Play %||13.4%||25.3%|
|% on Road||12.2%||23.7%|
|% at Home||14.5%||26.8%|
|Alexander Semin Tripping against Matt Ellis|
|Mike Knuble Interference against Paul Gaustad|
|Drew Stafford Roughing against Michal Neuvirth|
|Brendan Morrison Interference against Derek Roy|
|Craig Rivet Hooking against Tomas Fleischmann|
|Paul Gaustad Tripping against Tomas Fleischmann|