It hasn't exactly been a banner year for Alex Ovechkin, but the Washington Capitals captain is working on ending it in stellar fashion.
Ovechkin scored twice Friday night and the Capitals gained ground in both the Eastern Conference and Southeast Division races with a 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.
Nicklas Backstrom's goal early in the second period turned out to be the game-winner and Tomas Vokoun stopped 25 shots for the Capitals, who avenged a 4-2 loss four days earlier in Buffalo in which they gave up all four goals in the opening 20 minutes.
Jochen Hecht had the only goal for the Sabres, who got 18 saves from Ryan Miller.
"In the locker room, we just say we owe them," Ovechkin said, "and we just have to have a pretty good start."
Ovechkin enters Saturday's game in Columbus looking to extend his points streak to six straight to end 2011. It's been a tumultuous year for both the captain and his team -- Washington was swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the second round last spring by Tampa Bay, and a slow start this year led to Dale Hunter replacing Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. Meanwhile, Ovechkin followed up his worst season statistically in 2010-11 by scoring just 12 goals over his first 35 games this season.
A visit by Miller and the Sabres brought out the best in him Friday, however.
Buffalo defenseman Mike Weber was called for boarding just 27 seconds into the game, and on the ensuing power play Ovechkin received the puck from Vokoun and came flying down the right side of the ice. His attempted pass to Brooks Laich hit the stick of a Sabres defender and ricocheted past Miller at 1:42 to get Washington on the board.
It was the Capitals' only goal of the first period, but they outshot the Sabres by an 11-2 margin.
"I mean, they got a fortunate one on the first one," Buffalo right wing Jason Pominville said. "We kind of would like to get a few of those go our way, but that's just the way it's been going for us."
The teams traded goals in the second, with Backstrom extending the Capitals' lead to 2-0 at 3:52 before Hecht answered for the Sabres, cleaning up the rebound of a Thomas Vanek shot with 4:58 left before the intermission.
That set the stage for Ovechkin to put the game away in the third. This time it was Backstrom gliding down right wing before passing cross ice to Ovechkin for a sizzling one-timer that eluded Miller with 5:50 remaining. Ovechkin skated backwards into the boards and pumped his fists, a slightly more subdued celebration than in seasons past.
"He's a goal-scorer," Backstrom said, "and he should be up there."
Ovechkin has now scored 14 goals in 21 career games against Miller.
"When your top line scores -- Nicki and Alex and Alex -- the rest of the team plays hard," Hunter said. "And they feed off it."