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Capitals use big third to top Sabres, win ninth in row

by Katie Brown / NHL.com

WASHINGTON -- Down by a goal and two centers, the Washington Capitals scored four times in the third period to defeat the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 at Verizon Center on Wednesday for their ninth consecutive win.

"We are pretty relentless as a team," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "We are pretty confident in ourselves and what we can do as a group. Obviously, [losing players to injury] makes it tougher…but we are going to have to find different ways to win if they are out. I thought we played [well] all game; it just seemed that the goals came in the third, but they could have come anytime. We've been successful because we have depth. We're not going to fall apart if we lose a couple of guys."

Washington centers Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle each sustained an upper-body injury in the second period and did not play in the third.

Alex Ovechkin scored twice, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky each had a goal, and Holtby made 25 saves for the Capitals (28-6-2, 58 points), who lead the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers by 12 points for first place in the Eastern Conference. Holtby is 16-0-1 in his past 17 games and has 24 wins in 30 games this season.

Brian Gionta and Zemgus Girgensons scored for the Sabres (15-18-4), and Chad Johnson made 38 saves.

With Beagle and Backstrom out, coach Barry Trotz called on Evgeny Kuznetsov to play a bigger role. Back on a line with Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, where he started the season, Kuznetsov adjusted seamlessly and assisted on two goals.

"He knows that he's played at the highest level against very good teams and has had success," Trotz said of Kuznetsov. "It's just a confidence. He's always had the ability and the skill, but it's now the confidence and the trust that I think he has with us as a staff. He trusts his teammates; he trusts everything about how he's playing."

Gionta scored his fourth of the season at 5:48 of the first period for a 1-0 Sabres lead. Center Jack Eichel fed Gionta with a toe-drag pass, and the Buffalo captain scored on Holtby's glove side.

The Capitals dominated play for most of the second period, but Johnson made saves on 13 of 14 shots to allow the Sabres to take a 2-1 lead into the third.

"We exchange power plays in the third period there and we have an opportunity to go up in the game with a power play, and then when [Washington] gets theirs, they go up with it," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "That was the difference in the game really."

Williams tied it 1-1 at 14:08. Johnson went behind the net to play the puck, saw Kuznetsov approaching and inadvertently backhanded the puck to Williams, who scored his 11th goal into an open net.

Girgensons put the Sabres back ahead with 1:07 left in the second. Holtby played Eichel's weak backhand from his knees from the top of the left faceoff circle into the air, and Girgensons, who was crashing the net, scored his third of the season from the top of the crease.

"It was rewarding for [his line with Girgensons and Gionta] to be able to score two [goals], but today it wasn't enough," Eichel said. "We had other chances. We come back and hit a couple posts, a couple crossbars as a team, and we had our power-play opportunities and didn't capitalize on those; that was the difference in the game."

Capitals defenseman John Carlson missed his second consecutive game with a lower-body injury. Center Zach Sill made his NHL season debut in place of center Michael Latta, who was injured against the Sabres on Monday.

Sabres forward Tyler Ennis sustained an upper-body injury in the second period and did not return.

Ovechkin tied it 2-2 with his goal at 1:24 of the third period. Kuznetsov's backhand pass from behind the net found Ovechkin in the goal mouth, and his backhand shot beat Johnson.

"I think maybe the beginning of the second period, [we] start to put the puck in the net, through the net and try to find rebounds and some traffic," Ovechkin said. "We knew it was going to come. Our second goal was huge. [Kuznetsov] made a pretty good play."

Johansson gave Washington its first lead of the game with a power-play goal at 8:32 of the third. He tipped in Kuznetsov's shot from in front of Johnson for his eighth goal.

Burakovsky scored 1:24 later to make it 4-2. It was his third goal of the season and first in 25 games, dating to Oct. 23.

Ovechkin scored an empty-net goal with 1:13 remaining to make it 5-2. He has 20 goals this season and is five shy of 500 in his NHL career.

Backstrom will travel with the Capitals and might play against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday.

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