WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals proved Wednesday that they can win on a rare night when Alex Ovechkin doesn't do anything offensively.
Secondary scoring, some big saves from Michal Neuvirth and a strong defensive effort in the final 20 minutes helped the Capitals hold off the Buffalo Sabres for a 4-2 victory at Verizon Center.
It's only the fifth time this season Ovechkin has gone without a point -- and just the second time the Caps have won the game.
In each of their previous two games the Capitals were firmly in control only to concede the lead with a poor second period. Buffalo scored goals 48 seconds apart in the middle period of this game after Washington had built a three-goal advantage, but Neuvirth and the Capitals thwarted the Sabres' ability to complete a potential comeback.
"With the exception of the two minutes in the second we played really well," center David Steckel said. "We talked about it before the game, we came out and we executed it. We need to build off it. One game like that does not a season make."
Added Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau: "We just had to settle down. There has been so much talk about us not being able to play defensively and whatever and we started to panic - not panic but guys were getting excited on the bench. We had the veteran guys just say, 'OK, relax. We're playing a great game and let's get it going,' and we did. I thought we played really well from then on in."
Alexander Semin added an empty-netter with 4 seconds left for the final margin.
The Capitals won for the eighth time in nine games, and were able to avenge the only loss during that streak -- a 3-2 overtime defeat in Buffalo four days prior, in which Ovechkin also failed to hit the scoresheet. This was only the second time in eight games that Washington has yielded more than three goals, and keeping the puck of its net has been a focal point of the campaign.
Ryan Miller made 25 saves for Buffalo, but the Sabres lost in regulation for the first time in six games. Aside from a couple of flurries, the Sabres were unable to sustain much offensive pressure and Miller was letdown by the work of his defensemen below the goal line in their own end.
"I thought we played a decent third, but it wasn't meant to be," Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said. "We had our opportunities. We started working the puck deep and using our bodies down low. They played good hockey. You have to give them credit."
Neuvirth made five saves during a critical Buffalo power play in the third period, but the Sabres were only able to muster five shots on goal at even strength in the final 20 minutes -- and three of those came in the desperate moments with Miller at the bench before Semin's empty-netter.
The 22-year-old Neuvirth finished his night with 31 saves and now leads the NHL with 12 victories. He stopped all 10 shots he faced in the third period. Neuvirth is a big reason why only seven teams have yielded fewer goals in the final 20 minutes than the Capitals.
"I think it is from his experience from going through two championship rounds in the [AHL Calder Cup] playoffs," Boudreau said. "He knows when to really buckle down. He's protected the lead for us really good this year."
Semin helped the Capitals earn a two-man advantage by drawing a penalty on Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers and then he set up the team's first goal of the contest. Washington had 1:47 of 5-on-3 time and was eventually able to take advantage.
Semin drew the defensemen closest to him away from the goal line and slid a pass across to Nicklas Backstrom at the other post for an easy one-timer at 12:31. It was Backstrom's sixth goal of the season.
"They're going to get their chance," Leopold said. "You take a positive out of [killing most of it] but the negative is they scored and it ends up being the difference in the hockey game."
Boudreau shuffled his lines for this contest, and a new trio of role players provided the Capitals with plenty of offense. Jason Chimera typically plays on the third line, but Steckel and Matt Bradley joined him and they produced the team's second and third markers.
Bradley doubled Washington's lead at 17:04. Chimera and Karl Alzner won a battle for the puck behind the Buffalo net, and Chimera was able to send it into the slot for the fast-arriving Bradley. He missed the one-timer but still was able to propel the puck through Miller's legs for his second tally of the campaign.
"It was a hard finish by [Bradley] there," Alzner joked. "He really pounded it in there."
They teamed up again to push the Capitals' lead to three early in the second period. Bradley knocked the puck away from ex-Washington defenseman Shaone Morrisonn in the left corner and Chimera collected it before finding Steckel in the slot for a one-timer at 2:45.
"[Chimera] got in there and made some great plays and [Bradley] and I just kind of mucked it up and were in the right spots," Steckel said. "If you do the right stuff and you are working hard, it's easy to play together."
The Capitals appeared to be in complete control on the contest at the midway point, but a strong Buffalo shift led to a penalty against defenseman Mike Green and the game began to turn.
There was a scramble for the puck in the right corner with the Sabres on the power play and Thomas Vanek was able to get it to Derek Roy for a one-timer at 12:07. The next shot Neuvirth faced hit off him and the crossbar before drifting into the corner.
The Sabres didn't miss with the shot after that. Leopold scored his fifth of the season - 48 seconds after Roy's tally. Mike Grier deserved an assist for his work shielding Neuvirth and Buffalo was quickly back in the contest.
"After the third goal [allowed] we really turned the corner," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "We made a lot of good plays and won the battles to create some of those chances. I didn't like our start - obviously that hurt us."