WASHINGTON -- If he were a cartoon character, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff would have had steam coming out of his ears, enough to make his hair blow back.
Was he happy that his Buffalo Sabres rebounded Wednesday night to at least make a game of it before falling 5-2 to the Washington Capitals? Sure he was, but it didn't matter much -- not after witnessing a collective first-period flop by his first-place team.
The Sabres came out flat-footed in the first period and were down 2-0 before seven minutes had expired -- before the Capitals even had four shots on goal. It was shocking, Ruff said, because he hasn't seen too many flat starts by his team this season.
"We didn't deserve to win," Ruff added. "And, if you don't deserve to win you're not going to win. I said it earlier, if you play like that, maybe you win one of 10 where you don't show up. We didn't show up. To a man, they know that."
Tim Connolly had the game's first shot on goal 31 seconds in, but the Sabres didn't put another one on Caps rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth (32 saves) until Matt Ellis bounced a 60-footer toward the goal roughly 17 minutes later.
They were outscored 2-0 and outshot 15-4 through 20 minutes. Buffalo had another 11 shots blocked, including three during a listless power play -- a problem that has become all too familiar lately. After going 0-for-3 on Wednesday, the Sabres now have just three power-play goals in their last 13 games after scoring 22 in their first 23.
"You can't spot a team a period," said goalie Ryan Miller, who came up with 33 stops in a valiant effort. "We didn't come out the way we needed to. We essentially spotted them a period and it ended up being a bigger spread at the end."
The problem, Miller and Ruff each explained, is they gave the Capitals way too much time and space. They didn't do that in their previous meeting two weeks ago, and Miller wound up with his fourth shutout of the season in a 3-0 victory.
"We kind of let them do what they wanted and that's probably not the right thing to do against them," Miller said.
Ruff was particularly upset with how the Sabres let Nicklas Backstrom score 1:18 into the first period. It was a pretty give-and-go with Alex Ovechkin along the left-wing half wall, but Ruff said Backstrom should have never gotten into scoring position.
"I mean, you gotta pay attention to detail," Ruff said. "He should have been taken out of the play and they shouldn't have got a shot. We should have had a weak-side winger helping out and we didn't have that. It wasn't any good.
"You see what happens when you don't close on them," he later added. "If we would have closed on them, they wouldn't have gotten the first opportunity. We were there to close on them, we didn't close on them. I mean, they've got a lot of skill and a lot of talent and if you give them a lot of time, ice and room to shoot pucks they're going to make plays.
"The second period, when we went to work, we had our share of chances and they had fewer than we did."
He's right about that. The Sabres came out flying in the second and tossed everything at Neuvirth. They cashed in twice and were down only 3-2 heading into the third.
But Buffalo blew any chance of winning the game by committing a pair of minor penalties 69 seconds apart. Backstrom scored on the 5-on-3 and Ovechkin rifled home his 24th goal of the season on the ensuing 5-on-4.
Those penalties, a hooking call on Craig Rivet and tripping on Paul Gaustad, wound up sealing the Sabres' fate and probably were the difference in the game. Ruff, though, didn't even want to go there. He was too fed up with the start to worry about the finish.
"When we decided to go to work we played pretty good," Ruff said. "We had them on the ropes, but you can't not show up for 20 minutes. We started the Christmas holiday just a little too soon."
Despite Wednesday's effort, the Sabres will wake up on Christmas Day and realize they are still in prime position. They lead the Northeast Division by four points and have perhaps the leading candidate for the Hart and Vezina backstopping them.
"It's a good start, but no one ever won the Stanley Cup in December or January," Miller, the trophy candidate, said. "We need more attention to detail. I mean, it's there. In the second period we proved we can play. We just have to become a team that is going to be more consistent and we showed a lot of that during the first 30-some games here. Now we're approaching the halfway point and we have time to improve, but we have to get better if we want to contend."
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