There are no easy games in the National Hockey League, and on any given night any team can beat any other. That said, the Capitals went into Monday night's game against the Sabres in Buffalo expecting to get two points against a team that hadn't scored more than two goals in seven games and hadn't won in six.
But Washington wasn't able to follow up a strong 60-minute effort on Saturday in Pittsburgh with a solid start on Monday against the Sabres, and it had to settle for a single point in a 3-2 shootout loss. The decision leaves the Caps with a 1-0-2 mark for a their three-game trip, and both of those two points in the far-right column were pulled from the fire.
Once again, the Caps were unable to cobble together consecutive triumphs, a modest feat they've managed only once in 20 games since coming back from their midseason break (8-9-3).
"Average, at best," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, asked to assess the road trip. "This time of year we want to be reaching the next level, and we're staying average so we've got to find a way to push forward here. If we play the game [we played] tonight, we're not going to win more than we lose, and that's not a recipe for the success we want to have.
"We get a point, but that's not what we're looking at. We're looking at improving our game. We're going find a way to use this last stretch to really improve."
Video: Postgame | March 9
The Caps spotted Buffalo a 2-0 lead then roared back with a pair of goals in the third to force overtime. But limiting the Sabres to two goals for an eighth straight game wasn't enough, and Buffalo halted its slide at Washington's expense.
After failing on two separate chances to exit their own end safely, the Caps fell down 1-0 just ahead of the five-minute mark of the first. Carl Hagelin's breakout saucer pass for Lars Eller did not connect, and Buffalo's Colin Miller put the puck back down the wall. John Carlson got to it but didn't get much on his bid to chip it out, and Rasmus Dahlin flagged it down neatly. Dahlin went to Marcus Johansson, who put it on a tee for Victor Olofsson. From the right dot, Olofsson put a wrist shot past Holtby for a 1-0 lead at 4:53 of the first.
For the fifth time in 10 games, the Caps had just one power play chance in the game. That didn't come until after they fell behind on Buffalo's first extra-man opportunity of the game, in the first minute of the middle period.
With Brenden Dillon off for slashing, the Sabres won the draw and snapped the puck around their end with flair, ultimately isolating Jack Eichel for a one-timer for the left dot that made it 2-0 just 53 seconds into the second. It was Buffalo's first power-play goal in eight games, ending an 0-for-17 drought.
For the first half of the game, Washington authored plenty of one-and-done or none-and-done visits to the Buffalo end of the rink. Midway through the second period, the Caps started to show some signs of offensive life. Tom Wilson seemed to spark the team on a shift midway through second, where he laid a hit on Johan Larsson in neutral ice and then hurried Jake McCabe into icing the puck. Alex Ovechkin got a good scoring chance off the ensuing faceoff in Buffalo ice, and Wilson himself hit the goalpost later in the shift.
Buffalo goaltender Linus Ullmark stopped the Caps' best scoring chance of the first 40 minutes, blockering aside Nick Jensen's backhand bid from in tight off after a sublime play from Ilya Kovalchuk to set him up.
In the third, the Caps began to tilt the ice, and they were able to solve Ullmark after Evgeny Kuznetsov won a left-dot draw in Sabres territory. Ovechkin pulled the puck out of the pile, dragged it around a Buffalo defender and snapped it past Ullmark to make it a 2-1 game at 3:33.
Video: WSH@BUF: Ovechkin dekes, nets short-side wrister
Both goaltenders were brilliant throughout the third, as Holtby made a number of stellar stops to keep the Caps close while Washington needed a fortunate bounce to manufacture the tying tally. With just under seven minutes left, Dmitry Orlov's shot from the high slot glanced off Risto Ristalainen's skate and behind Ullmark.
Late in regulation, Buffalo's Brandon Montour beat Holtby through traffic from above the circles, but officials waved it off immediately because Sabres winger Jeff Skinner interfered with Holtby as he skated through the slot.
Orlov had perhaps the Caps' best scoring chance in overtime, but was unable to settle Kovalchuk's rolling feed. Seconds later, Orlov committed an offensive-zone tripping penalty to put the Sabres on a 4-on-3 power play. Thanks to a brave late block from Jonas Siegenthaler and a couple of Holtby saves, the Caps were able to extend the game to the shootout.
Both goalies excelled again in the prolonged skills competition, but Buffalo prevailed when Dominik Kahun beat Holtby in the top of the seventh and Ullmark - starting for the first time since suffering a lower body injury on Jan. 28 - made one last stop on Richard Panik.
Buffalo was relieved to end its slide, especially after Montour's apparent goal was waved off late.
"I thought we showed a lot of character in the group after 2-2," says Sabres coach Ralph Krueger. "They fight back, we get - for us - a clear goal, and we stuck with it. I'm real, real proud of the guys to get the win here today. It's been tough sledding of late."
Following one of their best 60-minute efforts of the season in a convincing 5-2 win in Pittsburgh on Saturday, the Caps were again unable to create traction in the standings by stringing together victories.
Video: Reirden Postgame | March 9
"That's not what we're looking for," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "I think overall though, our play in the last few games has been better. Even if you go back to the games we didn't like the result in, it certainly has come. In the last 10 days it has headed in the right direction, and in some areas for certain.
"We've just got to continue to realize that for us, our best efforts come with getting off to a good start and playing like we did in the third period. We've got to do that for a full 60 minutes."