Finishing off a six-game road trip with Saturday afternoon game against the Sabres in Buffalo, the Capitals didn't give themselves much of a chance to head home on a winning note from their longest journey in more than 15 years. Washington spotted the Sabres a two-goal lead in the first, and it proved to be too much to overcome in a 5-2 loss.
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin scores, but Caps lose to Sabres
"It's the end of a long trip," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "so not 100 percent surprising. But we're better than that."
The win snapped a four-game slide (0-3-1) for Buffalo, which was coming into Saturday's game off a strong performance on Thursday in Tampa Bay, a 2-1 shootout loss.
"I just like the urgency and the desperation that's in our game right now," says Sabres coach Phil Housley. "It's good to see that we can string another game of hard work for 60 minutes."
The Sabres struck first and early, taking a 1-0 lead they would never relinquish just 3:40 into the first frame. Jason Pominville was left all alone in front, and Jeff Skinner made a good play to feed him for the early Buffalo lead.
Buffalo winger Sam Reinhart scored his third career hat trick in Saturday's win, and the first of his three goals came at 12:51 of the first. The Caps' fourth line was pressing in the offensive zone when Buffalo gained possession and exited via a high flip to neutral ice. A fortuitous bounce and a nice play from Evan Rodrigues later, Reinhart had the puck along with time and space. From the inside of the right circle, he put a precision shot into the top far corner to make it a 2-0 game.
In the second, the Caps mounted a comeback bid, cutting the lead in half when Alex Ovechkin scored on a breakaway at 2:28 of the middle frame. Washington had chances to get even after that, but a combination of strong play from Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton and a lack of finish on the Caps' part preserved Buffalo's slim lead. A late Washington power play in the middle stanza didn't change the score, either.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | February 23
The Caps were a couple minutes away from heading to the second intermission down just one goal, but a Buffalo power play with just over two minutes remaining in the middle period altered the outlook and restored the Sabres' two-goal cushion. Washington was about 15 seconds away from completing the kill when Jack Eichel zipped a cross-ice feed for rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, whose one-timer from the left dot beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby to make it a 3-1 game with 30.4 seconds left in the second.
Washington compounded its troubles by taking an early penalty in the third, but the Caps killed that one off successfully and quickly pulled to within a goal for the second time when Andre Burakovsky deflected a Christian Djoos right point drive past Hutton at 4:16 to make it a 3-2 game.
A recurring issue this season has been the surrendering of goals against soon after goals scored, and that problem cropped up again when Reinhart netted his second of the night at 5:43, just 87 seconds after Burakovsky's goal. Reinhart's second goal was similar to Burakovsky's; he fought off a check in front to deflect a Matt Hunwick point shot past Holtby to make it a 4-2 game with 14:17 left.
"It's for sure a deep hole to dig yourself out of, going down two," says Caps center Lars Eller, "even though I felt we were able to actually battle back from that. I think the 4-2 goal was a bit of a kick in the face after getting close. Getting one early in the third, that's exactly what we needed. But then it was just too steep of a mountain for us to climb in the end."
Reinhart finished the scoring and filled out his hat trick with an empty-netter with 55.5 seconds left to account for the 5-2 final.
The Caps will head home now after a dozen days and nights on the road, and they won't have much time to lick their wounds. They're hosting the New York Rangers on Sunday in D.C.
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | February 23
"Looking at it, we knew it was going to be a tough trip for us," says Reirden. "That trip kind of sums up our game overall for the last little while, the inconsistency. We had a couple of games on this trip where we had everybody all in and really solid team efforts. Tonight, I didn't feel that was the case. It's too difficult a league to win in if you don't have everyone playing to their best ability. That's something we are going to need [Sunday] to have success."