We're not sure whether Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer awakened in Buffalo on Tuesday to the strains of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe," but regardless, it must have seemed like Groundhog's Day to the netminder by night's end.
For the fourth straight start, Grubauer drew the second of back-to-back games as his starting assignment. For the fourth straight start, he suffered from an extreme lack of offensive support. For the straight start, he played without owning a lead at any point in the contest. For the fourth straight start he deserved a better fate, and for the fourth straight start, he was saddled with a loss instead.
Grubauer and the Caps came up on the short end of a 3-1 score on Tuesday against the Sabres in Buffalo as Washington's modest three-game winning streak came to a halt. The normally even-tempered netminder's frustration came to the fore afterwards, and understandably so.
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"I don't know what to tell you," says Grubauer. "I'm sick of [expletive] losing. They put a couple of pucks on net early. It's all I can do is worry about stopping the next puck, give the guys a chance to win and go from situation to situation.
The Caps were seeking a better start than they've had in some of their second half of back-to-back games, but aside from Grubauer, they didn't really get it. Washington went shorthanded twice in the first, and it was outplayed in terms of territory and possession, but Grubauer's strong play enabled them to survive the first without any real damage.
Buffalo owned a 7-1 advantage in shots on net before the game was even three minutes old, as the rested Sabres came out with some verve in the early going against the Caps, who were also playing their fourth game in six nights. By period's end, the Sabres owned a 15-4 lead in shots on net and a 23-14 advantage in shot attempts. Five of Buffalo's shots came from inside of 25 feet in the first frame; none of Washington's did.
The Sabres were successful in jumping on the weary Caps, who were playing their fourth game in six nights, with travel involved in all four of those games.
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | November 7
"I really liked the way we started," says Sabres coach Phil Housley. "We came out, we had a shot mentality and we made the right decisions."
Washington's task was to try to wear down and exploit a battered Buffalo blueline that was playing without four regulars. The Caps were not successful in that regard.
"We were dumping the puck a lot," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "But we dumped it to them instead of dumping it to ourselves. You can dump it smart, or you can dump it not smart, and you have to just break it out again. That's an area where we weren't as successful as we've been."
Early in the second, the Sabres jumped out to a 1-0 lead. Just after the Caps finished killing off a carryover Buffalo power play, Washington's Lars Eller beat the Sabres' Jack Eichel on a draw in the Capitals' zone. But Eichel powered right around Eller and went directly for the boards, where Washington's Brooks Orpik was headed to try to make a play on the puck. Eichel stripped Orpik before the blueliner could really even establish possession, and quickly fed Evander Kane in front. Kane beat Grubauer from the top of the paint to stake Buffalo to a one-goal advantage at 2:39.
As the second period wore on, Washington seemed to gradually find its legs. The Caps had virtually nothing in the way of prime scoring chances or offensive-zone time in the first, but began to generate both as the middle frame progressed.
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Late in the second, the Caps squared the score. In neutral ice, Alex Ovechkin and Devante Smith-Pelly started a give and go, the former leaving the puck for the latter. Smith-Pelly skated it into Buffalo ice, and as he approached the top of the right circle, he began to survey for playmaking options. Seeing Ovechkin lurking laterally to his left, Smith-Pelly waited and then delivered a pass to the Caps' captain in the slot. Ovechkin somehow sold Sabres goalie Robin Lehner on a blocker side shot and got him leaning that way, opening up the entire right side of the net. Ovechkin didn't miss, and the Caps were all even 1-1 with 2:16 left in the second.
Buffalo got the lead back early in the third. Sabres forward Benoit Pouliot went end to end and netted a dazzling unassisted goal that proved to be the game-winner. Pouliot shook off Caps winger Jakub Vrana with a move near the Washington line, then shot from just inside the left circle, beating Grubauer high to the glove side at 3:22.
Washington had plenty of time to answer, but again was unable to do so. The Caps didn't help themselves by taking a pair of penalties in the aftermath of the Pouliot goal, but they just weren't able to manufacture another equalizer. Lehner left some loose change in front, but the Caps were never quite in position to make a deposit.
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin's goal not enough in 3-1 loss
Kane sealed the Caps' fate with an empty-netter with 20 seconds left.
"We had a real good second period, and we got it tied up," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I felt we were playing well enough to get a point in that game, and then obviously Pouliot scored there and we weren't able to close it out and get a point."
"I have to hand it to the guys in the locker room, because we had the start that we wanted," says Housley. "I thought we came out with authority, because that's a really good hockey team. We didn't get anything for it, which was important to realize that you just stay the course.
As for the Caps, they can take some solace in the fact that a schedule that has delivered four sets of back-to-back games in the last 26 days will ease up a bit on the horizon. Washington has just one set of back-to-backs on the slate in the next 33 days.
"I don't think we're playing 60 minutes," says Grubauer, when asked about common threads in these setbacks in the second of back-to-backs. "We had a couple of minutes at the end of the second period where we dominated. We dominated in the last period. But I think if we play 60 minutes and play our game - the same as last year - I don't think a lot of teams can hang with us."