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Caps finish trip all even after loss to Sabres in Buffalo, Ovechkin stays hot as do the Hershey Bears, more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

Splitting The Six-Pack - With Saturday's 5-2 loss to the Sabres in Buffalo, the Caps finally head home from their longest road trip of the season and their longest trip in more than 15 years. Washington split the six games on the trip, coming home with a 3-3-0 mark, and that's exactly what they deserved.

In three of the games on the trip - in San Jose, Los Angeles and Toronto - the Caps turned in a strong 60-minute performance and had good compete and commitment levels. Not surprisingly, they won those three games. In the other three games - IN Columbus, Anaheim and Buffalo -- Washington was lackluster for far too many minutes of the game and it displayed little cohesion as a five-man unit.

Twice in the first period of Saturday's game against the Sabres, Buffalo shooters had time and space from the middle of the ice in front of Caps goalie Braden Holtby. Jason Pominville and Sam Reinhart were both able to score from those prime areas, and that 2-0 Buffalo lead after 20 minutes of play proved to be too much for the road weary Capitals to overcome.

"I didn't think we did a great job of insulating him tonight at all," said Caps coach Todd Reirden after the loss in Buffalo. "And as a result, he gave up some goals. But we also gave up a lot of opportunities because we weren't working as a five-man unit. You've got to have all six guys at their best when they are on the ice to have success, and we didn't have that. So we can be better."

Washington gets home with 20 games remaining on their schedule, and they're still looking for the level of consistency they displayed during a six-week stretch leading up to the midpoint of the season.

In winning the Presidents' Trophy and giving up the fewest goals against in the league in 2016-17, the Caps permitted four or more goals 15 times in 82 games, going 3-11-1 in those games.

In winning the Stanley Cup last season, the Caps were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team, the Caps permitted four or more goals 23 times in 82 games, going 3-16-4 in those games.

Thus far this season, the Caps have permitted 3.18 goals per game, 23rd in the league and last among the 16 current occupants of playoff positions in both conferences. In just 62 games this season, the Caps have already permitted four or more goals in 23 of them, the same number as they had last season over a full 82-game slate. The Caps are 3-15-5 in those games.

Most of Washington's ongoing issues originate in their own end of the ice.

"Just the overall six-man job," says Reirden, "whether it's breakdowns on breakouts or coming out of the defensive zone with wall play or execution through the neutral zone - which I thought was a struggle for us tonight with our regroup. Structure was not where it needs to be in doing some things incorrectly that way."

The Caps made two additions to the roster via the trade route while they were out on the road, and both are designed to help the team improve defensively. Veteran left wing Carl Hagelin has excellent speed and should improve the team's bottom six and its penalty kill. Defenseman Nick Jensen is adept at breaking the puck out and at going up against the opposition's top players.

Hagelin debuted with Washington on Saturday in Buffalo, and Jensen will do so on Sunday against the New York Rangers.

"We are starting to get some new faces in here," says Reirden. "We will see Nick Jensen play [Sunday] and we will continue to build chemistry with the group we have. But for a long trip, there were some encouraging signs, but not the consistency we want to have, night in and night out."

Five In A Row - Caps captain Alex Ovechkin scored Washington's first goal of Saturday's game, marking the fifth straight game in which he has scored and the fourth straight game in which he netted Washington's first goal of the game.

This is the 13th streak of five or more straight games with a goal for Ovechkin, the most such streaks since he entered the league in 2005-06.

Ovechkin has also scored the Caps' first goal of the game in four straight games and five of the last seven. He has scored Washington's first goal nine times this season, tops on the team.

Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears remained the hottest team in the circuit with a 3-2 shootout win over the Rockford Ice Hogs on Saturday night at Giant Center. Hershey has won 11 straight games and has earned a point in a franchise record 17 straight (16-0-0-1).

The Bears fell down early on Saturday night, but drew even on Ryan Sproul's eighth goal of the season, an unassisted tally at 14:54 of the first. Rockford regained the lead before the end of the game's initial period, and it carried a 2-1 advantage into the third.

At 1:28 of the third, Garrett Pilon supplied the equalizer for Hershey with a single assist from Beck Malenstyn. Pilon's goal forced overtime, which solved nothing, and the Bears prevailed in the skill session to make a winner of goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who improved to 14-11-1-2 with a 21-save outing.

Samsonov is 9-0-1 in his last 10 appearances, and he has permitted two or fewer goals in nine of those 10 games.

Hershey is back in action on Sunday afternoon, taking to the road to face the Sound Tigers in Bridgeport.

The 31-20-0-3 Bears have climbed to third place in the Atlantic Division standings, and they are six points behind second-place Bridgeport with three games in hand.

By The Numbers - John Carlson led the Caps with 25:03 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with eight shots on goal, 10 shot attempts and five hits … Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik blocked two shots each to lead the Caps … Nic Dowd won seven of nine face-offs (78 percent) and Lars Eller won eight of 13 (62 percent).

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