recap sabres

Two nights after authoring one of their most uplifting victories of the season in Detroit, the Caps suffered a most excruciating setback at the hands of the Sabres in Buffalo. Needing a win to maintain their precarious hold on the second wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, the Caps fell short, dropping a 4-2 decision on Thursday night at Buffalo’s Key Bank Center.

Because the two teams immediately behind them in the standings – Detroit and Pittsburgh – faced one another on Thursday, the Caps went into the Buffalo game knowing that a loss would leave them on the outside looking in with just three games to go. That game resulted in the worst possible outcome for the Caps; Pittsburgh prevailed in overtime, so the Pens passed the Caps and the Wings drew even with them in the standings.

The Caps needed and got a good start on Thursday, but they weren’t able to sustain it into the middle frame. And by that time, they were down a goal. The Sabres scored the game’s opening tally in the last minute of the first, doing so on just their fifth shot on net of the frame. Buffalo was opportunistic with its chances on this night, and Washington’s attack was once again too quiet for too long.

“Especially early on, I thought we did a really good job of executing exactly what we wanted to from a game plan standpoint,” says Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery. “And then it becomes a little bit of a microcosm of our season; that’s what’s happened so many times.

“Because we struggle to score, and finish, and make that last play – both individually and collectively – then, when it doesn’t go in for us and we get those shot attempts and those opportunities and they’re missing, and they’re missing, two things happen. One, we go down in the game; they score and you’re starting to feel like, ‘Jeez, are we going to be able to find one? We’ve had all these opportunities.’

“And then the second thing that happens is we change our game just a tiny bit, and then in the second period, because we haven’t scored, because we haven’t been rewarded, we get sloppy. We start to turn the puck over, and we try to do something that’s just uncharacteristic of our group; it’s not our bread and butter, it’s not what we excel at.

“And then you see in the second period, where things were going well in the first, now we have one shot through 15 minutes of the second or something crazy like that. And then we got back to it in the third, and I though we were right there, and we could have won the game. We just weren’t able to make a play offensively.”

Washington had a good first period, but still went to the room down a goal after 20 minutes of play. The Caps limited the Sabres to a single shot on net in the first half of the opening frame, and Washington was able to mount a consistent forecheck throughout the first as well. The stanza was scoreless until late in the frame when Buffalo jumped in front.

As the clock ticked down to the final minute, the Caps weren’t able to make good on multiple zone exit opportunities. That failure to execute bit them when Buffalo’s Zach Benson tipped home a Jeff Skinner slot shot with exactly a minute remaining in the period.

Washington doubled up Buffalo in both shots on net (10-5) and in shot attempts (28-14) in what was a penalty free first period, and the Caps held a 7-2 advantage in high danger scoring chances, according to

In the second, the tides of possession were turned. The Caps weren’t able to create or sustain any sort of forechecking pressure until the last couple of shifts of the period. The middle period was also penalty free, and it was tightly played for the most part. But midway through the frame, the Sabres doubled their lead.

Buffalo gained the zone on the rush, with Tage Thompson carrying. He dished to Henri Jokiharju, who fed a late-arriving Alex Tuch in the middle of the ice. From between the circles, Tuch ripped a shot that beat Charlie Lindgren, making it a 2-0 game at 12:37.

To that point of the period, the Caps had been whisper quiet offensively; Nic Dowd’s shot on net in the first minute of the frame was the only one Washington mustered to that point of the period, and the Caps had managed just two shot attempts.

But less than two minutes after the Tuch tally, the Caps pulled to within one once again. John Carlson quick-upped the puck to Max Pacioretty, who gained the zone on the right side and fed Connor McMichael driving to the net. McMichael’s goal – on the Caps’ second shot on goal and third shot attempt of the period – came at 14:36, and it halved the Buffalo lead to 2-1.

“They made a line change, and we did as well,” recounts McMichael. “We beat them off the bench and Patch made a nice play over to me, and I just put it in.”

The Caps were down one after one, and down one after two periods of play, but that’s as close as they got. When Jack Quinn scored for Buffalo at 9:46 of the third, the hole was again two goals, and that’s where it stayed until the Caps got Lindgren off for a sixth attacker. Buffalo’s Dylan Cozens bagged an empty-net goal at 17:43 to make it 4-1, and the Caps kept Lindgren out in hope of pulling off a miracle finish.

With exactly a minute left in the game, Tom Wilson tipped a Carlson center point shot past Buffalo goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, but that was it. For the seventh time in eight games (1-5-2), the Caps found themselves on the wrong end of the score, and for the eighth straight game, they couldn’t manage more than two goals.

Thursday’s loss pushes the Caps down to a three-way tie for ninth place – along with Detroit and Philadelphia – in the Eastern Conference, a point behind Pittsburgh. The Caps hold a game in hand on the Flyers, but they no longer control their playoff destiny with just three games – in four nights – remaining.

“Coming off a big win like we did against Detroit, with four games left in the year, every game matters,” rues Lindgren. “It’s definitely frustrating to come up short here. Obviously, with three games left, we’ve got to lay it all out there.”

The Caps head home to host Tampa Bay late Saturday afternoon.