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Sabres take 8th in East by whipping Caps 5-1

by Dan Rosen
WASHINGTON -- The playoff atmosphere inside Verizon Center didn't faze the Buffalo Sabres, who continue to look like a team primed to play deep into April.

Thirty-eight days after they were left for dead as the last-place team in the Eastern Conference, nine points removed from the top eight, the Sabres 5-1 victory against Washington on Tuesday gave them sole possession of eighth-place and control of their own playoff fate with five games remaining in the regular season.

They got goals from four different players and points from 10. Drew Stafford scored twice and Tyler Ennis had assists on both to lead Buffalo's offense, which has produced 22 goals during this five-game winning streak.

Ryan Miller continued his second-half resurgence with a season-high 44 saves for his 14th win in his last 18 starts. And, the Sabres didn't let Alex Ovechkin get any breathing room as they collapsed on the Capitals' red-hot captain, whose goal-scoring streak ended at five games.

The win and accompanying two points gives Buffalo an 86-84 advantage over the Capitals, who drop down to ninth-place with five games left. The Sabres are 7-0-2 since a 3-1 loss at Boston on March 8 and 14-2-3 since Feb. 19, when they were 15th in the Eastern Conference.

"We've been in this mode for a while, a playoff mode where every game has been a must-win for us," Stafford said. "Obviously with this game, them being right there with us in the standings, the stakes are a little bit higher, but we're not done yet. We're in the position we want to be, but we know the road is just going to get tougher."

Buffalo is off until Friday, when the Penguins visit First Niagara Center. They also play the Maple Leafs twice and close the regular season with games at Boston and Philadelphia.

The Capitals will get a chance to tie Buffalo in points when they face the Bruins in Boston on Thursday. They also play Montreal, Tampa Bay, Florida and the New York Rangers before the 2011-12 regular season is said and done.

Washington still owns the tiebreaker with five more non-shootout victories, but now the Capitals will need to win and get some help to get into the postseason. Their chances at catching Florida for first in the Southeast Division also took a huge hit Tuesday as the Panthers won in Montreal to extend their lead to five points.

"You got to forget about (Tuesday's loss) now; it's done," Caps coach Dale Hunter said. "We need to win in Boston."

The Sabres have needed to win just about every game they have played since late January. They're not far off with a 19-5-5 record dating back to a 2-1 win at New Jersey on Jan. 24.

Buffalo also had a similar finish last season, when it went 16-4-4 down the stretch to finish as the seventh seed.

"I guess we're better late than never," Miller said. "It's not ideal, but it's what's necessary."

Miller added that the Sabres run over the last two months gives him a sense of pride.

"We were being questioned about our makeup and the kind of players we were for a long time, and I think we knew we had better hockey," he said. "You don't want to be remembered for having a horrible start and basically wasting a season. You want to battle and compete.

"We're happy with the checkpoint we're at right now, but five games, some tough opponents, and it's the same situation we've been in for two and a half months -- we've got to win."

It was a potentially-costly win Tuesday as Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff left the game late in the first period and did not return due to what appears to be a left leg injury. Ehrhoff, who missed 11 games earlier this season with an upper-body injury, appeared to collide knee-on-knee with Troy Brouwer. He had a noticeable limp as he left Verizon Center.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Ehrhoff will be evaluated Wednesday in Buffalo, "but it looks like he is going to miss a little bit of time."

Buffalo jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first 22 and a half minutes, forcing Hunter to make a goalie switch.

Michal Neuvirth came on for Braden Holtby after the 22-year-old rookie gave up his third goal on 18 shots. Holtby was 2-0-1 with a 28-save shutout against Minnesota in three starts prior to Tuesday's, but the magic clearly wore off as the Sabres got to him early.

Holtby's own blind pass that led to a turnover helped Cody McCormick score his first goal of the season 8:45 into the first period to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead.

"We talked about his puck-handling, it was one thing that was a little bit on the high-risk side," Ruff said. "We knew they relied on him a little bit to engineer some of their breakouts, so for the most part we thought if we could guess right we might be able to pick one off."

Holtby struggled with his rebound control later in the period, leading to Stafford's first goal with 1:55 left before the first intermission. He scored again 9:29 into the third period off a 2-on-1 rush with Ennis to give Buffalo its 5-1 lead.

"We want to get pucks on net, get bodies there, and it just so happened we capitalized on some of our chances and he got chased," Stafford said. "A fresh goalie comes in and you want to get pucks on net even more. I thought we did a good job of that."

Thomas Vanek's goal 2:31 into the second period was the last shot Holtby saw. He made the initial save on Cody Hodgson with his left toe, but Washington didn't get a body on Vanek, who had all day to pick the top left corner of the net for a 3-0 lead.

Alexander Semin's wrist shot from above the right circle cut the deficit down to 3-1 less than three minutes later, but Jason Pominville extended Buffalo's lead back to three goals with 2:28 left in the second. Ovechkin couldn't hold the puck in at the left point and Pominville beat him to it at the center-ice wall en route to his second shorthanded goal of the season.

"I thought we were starting to feel pretty good about ourselves," Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. "The crowd was feeling pretty good…and that was a real killer."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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