On his 25th birthday and with his parents watching him play live for the first time at the NHL level, Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 32 saves to help Washington to a 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. The victory enabled the Caps to put a positive coda on a season-long five-game homestand; the Caps went 4-1 while outscoring the opposition by a combined 17-8.
Video: BUF@WSH: Grubauer makes quick saves on a power play
Washington won the special teams battle, and the Caps got goals from Daniel Winnik, Marcus Johansson and Brett Connolly in support of Grubauer.
Going into their homestand finale against the Sabres, the Capitals knew they needed to stay out of the penalty box as much as possible. The Sabres entered the game with the league's ninth best power play, but Buffalo also came in as the league's least prolific team in scoring at five-on-five.
Washington took four minor penalties in the game, but three of those came in the game's final 21 minutes and Grubauer was at his best when the Sabres had the extra man. He stopped all seven Buffalo shots while the Sabres were on the power play.
"On the first one, I think we had three real good opportunities," says Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. "We had [Kyle] Okposo on the back door, a one-timer from [Risto] Ristolianen and then there was one more in the slot, off a rebound off a shot from the point.
"[The Capitals] are a team that puts a lot of pressure up top; they put on a lot of pressure with their forwards. When we were able to move the puck around, we got opportunities to score. And we got opportunities on the last one again. I think we probably had more than a handful of scoring chances with the power play with nothing to show for it."
Having pulled to within a goal midway through the third period, Buffalo had a chance to tie the game when Andre Burakovsky was whistled for a late penalty for delay of game (puck over glass).
"They do a really good job of just wristing pucks to the net and four guys converging," says Winnik of the Buffalo power play. "So we have to really focus on getting in shooting lanes as opposed to taking angles on guys at the points. Even a couple of times when we had chances to clear, they did a real good job of forcing you to make a mistake. I thought we did a really good job tonight of focusing on our clears and talking, and that makes a big difference for the penalty kill."
Three goals worth of offensive support may not seem like a lot, but it is quite a bounty for Grubauer. The Caps had scored exactly one goal in support of Grubauer in each of his two previous starts, and last season Washington scored two or fewer goals in 12 of Grubauer's 17 starts.
"He deserved that," says Johansson of Grubauer's birthday performance. "I think every game he's played this year he has been playing really well for us. He gave us a chance every night. He did that again. We've got two unbelievable goalies back there and they give us a chance every night. It's awesome, and to get that win on his birthday is good for him."
Grubauer improved to 3-1-1 on the season. He lowered his GAA to 1.80 and he improved his save pct. to .936.
"The goalies always have to be really good in order to win games," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. "And he just made a lot of saves look kind of routine. He was just blocking pucks, he was finding the ones that were coming through from the point because we did our scout and we knew that they just wanted to send them through. He just found ways to get his eyes on it. We saw him working on it in practice [Friday] morning and it clearly paid off."