Two nights removed from a strong, 60-minute effort against the league-leading New York Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres battled hard once again, but fell 4-3 in a shootout to the visiting Washington Capitals.
Monday’s game proved to be a back and forth affair. After the Sabres jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the first, the Capitals battled back and eventually took a 3-2 lead early in the third. The Sabres did manage to tie the game late in regulation to force overtime, but were unable to score in three consecutive shootout attempts against Washington goalie Braden Holtby.
Although the club failed to obtain the full two points, Sabres head coach Ted Nolan was pleased with his team’s effort.
“These guys for the last little while have given everything they’ve got. They punch the clock,” Nolan said. “You couldn’t say one guy gave us any less than the other. They gave us what they had to give, and that’s all you can ask for.”
After failing to get a single puck past rookie Rangers goalie Mackenzie Skapski on Saturday, the Buffalo Sabres managed to get on the board twice in the opening period against one of the NHL’s hottest netminders.
The game jumped into life quickly when Mike Weber checked Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom awkwardly into the boards. Although no initial penalty was called on Weber for the hit, Washington captain Alex Ovechkin took exception to Weber’s actions. In the ensuing scrum behind the Buffalo net, Ovechkin picked up four penalty minutes for roughing Weber, and provided Buffalo with the first power play of the night for either team.
Although the much-maligned Sabres power play has struggled all season long, the five-man unit produced several quality chances on their first man-advantage. After Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta just narrowly missed putting Buffalo up by one, Tyler Ennis finally managed to put the Sabres on the board.
Ennis, who started off the power play on the point for the Sabres, exchanged a clever give-and-go with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, and then fired a shot past Holtby high on the blocker side.
“That power play was one of the prettier goals we’ve scored all year,” Nolan said. “Tyler is just so creative, and we needed a guy back there to play the whole two minutes, so he did a pretty good job for us.”
The goal was Ennis’ 18th of the season, with Ristolainen and Sabres captain Brian Gionta picking up the assists.
Minutes later, the Capitals would equalize with a power play tally of their own.
Following a Jerry D’Amigo hooking penalty, Washington’s second-ranked power play unit went to work against the Sabres 30th-ranked penalty kill.
With 14 seconds left in D’Amigo’s penalty, Matt Niskanen ripped a point shot that was deflected on frame by Joel Ward. Sabres goalie Anders Lindback made the initial stop, but the resulting rebound was hammered home by Capitals trade deadline acquisition Curtis Glencross.
The power play goal was Glencross’ 13th of the season, and his fourth in seven games with the Caps.
The game would not remain tied for long however, as 46 seconds following Glencross’ goal, the Sabres would be the beneficiaries of some early St. Patrick’s Day luck.
On what looked like a fairly routine chance, Cody Hodgson fired a backhander that went off of Holtby’s shoulder and popped straight up into the air. When it came back down, the puck bounced off of the Washington goalie’s back, and into the net.
The goal was Hodgson’s fifth of the season, with Tim Schaller picking up the only assist.
While the Sabres managed to take their one-goal lead into the first intermission, the Capitals knotted things up with 6:09 played in the second.
Following a faceoff to the right of Lindback, Capitals winger Marcus Johansson maneuvered his way behind the Buffalo net only to just miss connecting on a diving wraparound attempt. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the puck found its way to oncoming defenseman Mike Green, who promptly fired a shot past a sprawling Lindback into the open net.
The game-tying goal was Green’s sixth of the season. Johansson and Brooks Laich picked up the helpers.
The Sabres missed a golden opportunity to take yet another one-goal lead into the third period.
As the last few seconds trickled off of the second period clock, Gionta broke into the clear, but was denied by Holtby’s right pad.
Washington would grab its first lead of the game with 9:49 played in the third with another power play goal.
With only 15 seconds left in Nikita Zadorov’s delay of game penalty, Capitals rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov walked into the Sabres zone uncontested, and fired a wrist shot past Lindback on the blocker side.
For a few minutes, Kuznetsov’s eighth goal of season seemed like it would hold up as the game-winner. However, the Sabres would have other plans.
With 13:50 played in the third period, defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who was called up from Rochester this afternoon because of injuries to Zach Bogosian and Andrej Meszaros, ripped a point shot from Holtby’s right. Just before the Caps goaltender could snag it, Johan Larsson tipped Ruhwedel’s shot past Holtby.
The goal, which was Larsson’s fourth of the season, continued the young center’s strong play of late. Larsson’s goal also stood as the final tally from either team in regulation.
While neither team was able to score in the extra session, Kuznetsov was able to get the puck past Lindback on Washington’s first shootout attempt. The young Russian’s goal proved decisive, as Holtby managed to stop Ennis, Matt Moulson, and Phil Varone consecutively to give the Capitals their second consecutive win in as many nights.
Despite the loss, the Sabres will hope their effort carries over to the upcoming games.
“There was no quit and that’s what you like to see. We battled to come back and tie it up,” said defenseman Mike Weber. “We pushed hard in overtime and had a couple good chances. We couldn’t quite finish it off there, but it was a good all-around effort.”
LARSSON’S STRONG STRETCH CONTINUES
In addition to his game-tying goal late in the third period, Larsson logged a career-high 23:10 minutes of ice time, which was third among all Sabres forwards behind Gionta (23:59) and Ennis (23:22).
Since his most recent call-up a little over a month ago, Larsson has displayed far more consistency within his offensive game. He attributes that to an increased level of comfort at the NHL level.
“I’m not chasing the game anymore. I let the game come to me more,” Larsson said. “I’m not trying to make something happen every time out there. I’m much more calm now.”
One of the Sabres veterans believes Larsson is making good on the potential that his teammates have long known the 22-year-old Swede possessed.
“I think we’ve all known for a while what Larry can do, and now he’s showing everybody what he can do,” said Weber. “He’s a bulldog out there. He’s hard to play against and he’s strong on the puck. Even if he loses it he’s coming right back for it.”
The Sabres will play the second half of their back-to-back set as they travel to Boston to take on a Bruins team that currently occupies the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The game will once again be nationally televised, with puck drop scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN and WGR 550