The Buffalo Sabres are off to a hot start this season, but the Caps cooled them off on Friday night at Capital One Arena. It took the Caps just seven minutes and three shots on net to muster all the offense they and Braden Holtby would need in a 6-1 stomping of the Sabres.
"It was a good four-line game for us," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "and we got contributions from a lot of different people. When we did have breakdowns - which we did have some - Braden was really solid tonight. So that allowed us to take advantage of the opportunities we got in the opposite direction, which I thought we were very opportunistic and were able to convert."
Washington survived an early penalty killing mission and then went to work in the offensive zone. First, Tom Wilson fed linemate Jakub Vrana with a sharp backhand pass from high in the Washington zone, springing Vrana into Buffalo ice on a breakaway. Vrana did the rest, beating Linus Ullmark for a 1-0 Caps lead at 6:17 of the first.
Forty-two seconds later, they doubled up on that lead with a rush goal from the fourth line. After the Sabres missed connections on a cross-ice pass deep in Washington ice, the trio took off on a 4-on-1 rush. Brendan Leipsic carried into the zone, fed Travis Boyd on the right side, and then Boyd went to Chandler Stephenson in the middle. Stephenson went to his backhand and beat Ullmark to make it a 2-0 game at 6:59.
Before the period was half over, the Caps struck again, scoring on an offensive zone shift this time around. As Wilson carried out from behind the Buffalo net, Kempny pinched down to the half wall from the left point. Wilson left it for him, and Kempny fired a dart of a cross-ice feed for Vrana at the right dot. Vrana one-timed it home at 9:29 to make it a 3-0 game.
Less than two minutes later, the fourth line struck again, scoring another rush goal. Boyd carried into Buffalo ice, put on the brakes at the half wall and shimmied his way past Buffalo blueliner Rasmus Dahlin. Boyd carried around the back of the Buffalo net, then fed Leipsic at the bottom of the right circle, Leipsic fired and beat Ullmark at 10:44, scoring his first goal as a member of the Capitals.
"Boyder just made a great play," recounts Leipsic. "I was just trying to find a quiet area. He dipsied a couple of guys, and made a great play back door. It was tough to miss that one."
Holtby was strong in the Caps net in the first, too, as he faced a number of short-ice situations - including a Jack Eichel semi-breakaway - and had the answer for all 16 shots sent his way in the first, and he finsihed the night with 29 stops.
"We're disappointed with what happened in the first period, of course," says Sabres coach Ralph Krueger. "We got away from the simple game and the decisions we needed to make with the puck. We gave them really everything they got in the first period, and we had some excellent opportunities that we didn't capitalize on."
Buffalo cut into the lead ahead of the midpoint of the second, getting on the board courtesy of a fortunate bounce. Henri Jokiharju's left point shot glanced off the backside of Caps defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, popped into the air, and landed behind Holtby and in the net at 10:40 of the second.
Washington got that one back late in the frame when Kempny let a shot fly from the left point, and Wilson tipped it past Ullmark from the slot, enabling the Caps to take a four-goal lead into the third period for the first time this season.
After relying heavily on Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson for offense in October, the Caps had a much more diverse attack in Friday's game, getting six goals - all at 5-on-5 - and with three of the four lines accounting for the scoring.
"Ever since I've been here, the first line is always out there, putting the team on their backs," says Wilson. "They still had one tonight. It's nice to get scoring from all lines for sure, and it's always nice when they're going in."
Late in the third, Kempny hit T.J. Oshie perfectly on a timing play, setting up Oshie's eighth goal of the season at 13:43 and closing out the scoring for the night. Washington got its lone power play of the night with 96 seconds left, and it tried in vain to set up Vrana for the hat trick, but he happily settled for the two goals, and the two points.
The Caps have had a number of games this season where they've opened up the attack; they're averaging 3.93 goals per game, which ranks second in the league. But perhaps the most pleasing part of Friday's win was limiting the Sabres to a single goal. The Caps hadn't done that in nearly three weeks, since a 4-1 win over the Stars in Dallas on Oct. 12.
"It could have been definitely a different game," laments Krueger. "We could have used some of those early chances, but at the end we have to be disappointed in the first period. We just couldn't climb back into this one."