WASHINGTON - A strong performance on the penalty kill was one of the reasons the Buffalo Sabres found themselves trailing by only one goal with five minutes remaining against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Friday night. They'd killed three penalties in the game to that point and kept Alex Ovechkin, fresh off of a hat trick on Wednesday, off the score sheet.
As the Sabres pushed to tie the game late, however, a call for too many men on the ice gave the Capitals one more try on the power play. Jake McCabe had one leg over the boards as the Sabres prepared to change on defense, and an errant pass went off his skate. Washington earned the extra man with 4:20 remaining in regulation.
Shortly into that fourth power play, Ovechkin took his deadly one-time shot from the left circle. Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson made the initial save, but the rebound went into the slot and Brett Connolly scored into an open net. The goal effectively ended the Sabres' comeback attempt in what ended as a 3-1 loss.
"It was a push at that point to get the second [goal]," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think the penalty there killed us with the too many men on the ice."
The Sabres went scoreless on their own four power plays, including two in the third period. As has been the case often this season, they piled up scoring chances - Ryan O'Reilly hit the post with a shot, Kyle Okposo had an opportunity at the back door, and so on - but were unable to find the back of the net.
"I think the chances were there [for] both teams," forward Sam Reinhart said. "I think that was one of the best puck movement power play games and for whatever reason we didn't get goals and some games we weren't as sharp we seem to find the back of the net. It is frustrating when we're getting those looks and not putting them a way."
Video: Reinhart: Postgame Interview at WSH
"They're a team that put a lot of pressure up top and put a lot of pressure with their forwards," Bylsma said. "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 have more than a handful of scoring chances on the power play but nothing to show for it."
One of the Capitals' calling cards this season has been scoring early - they entered the game tied for third in the League with 21 first-period goals - and Daniel Winnik kept that trend going when with a goal that gave Washington a 1-0 lead 5:08 into the contest.
The Capitals extended their lead in the second period, turning a Sabres rush into one of their own. They began with the puck deep in their own zone, but got out ahead of the defense to create a 2-on-1 rush. Josh Gorges broke up an initial pass across the net, but the puck deflected to Marcus Johansson, who was the third man in. Johansson beat Nilsson with a stick-side shot from the slot.
Bylsma explained the breakdown afterward, saying his forwards needed to get back quicker on defense with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen having joined the rush.
"We were on a rush play with Ristolainen going wide and he shot the puck," Bylsma said. "At that point in time, we just didn't have good identification that we needed to be back and covering them up. When a defenseman is down on the play, not only do you need a forward back playing defense but you need to have an F3. We didn't identify that, got caught going down with the puck which left a 3-on-1 behind and their numbers eventually caught up with us."
O'Reilly was one of the forwards on the ice at that point, and he took responsibility for allowing Johansson to get to the slot uncovered when he spoke after the game. He said that both Johansson's and Connolly's goals were in part a result of him trying anything he could in search of a goal for his own team.
"I'm trying to find a way to put the puck in the net, trying a different style, trying to cheat a bit more and create," O'Reilly said. "Clearly it didn't work. I've got a lot of fixing to do and I think a lot of those goals were my fault because of trying to play that way."
Reinhart scored for the Sabres to cut a 2-0 deficit in half with 10:02 remaining in regulation. He was the beneficiary of a good pass from Okposo along the boards and capitalized by scoring with a quick wrist shot from the left faceoff circle. The goal marked his third point in three games (1+2).
Video: BUF@WSH: Reinhart cuts the deficit with a wrister
Unfortunately for the Sabres, it also marked their only goal of the game.
"It is frustrating," Reinhart said. "I don't know one guy in here that isn't. But with that being said, they're going to come in spurts and we have to be ready for that. We've got to keep finding those chances and I think just bearing down more in practice and that's all we can do."
The Sabres are back on the road Tuesday for a game against the Ottawa Senators. The two have met twice this month already; the Sabres earned a come-from-behind victory in Ottawa on Nov. 5 and the Senators won in a shootout in Buffalo on Nov. 9. The score in both games was 2-1.
Coverage on Tuesday begins at with the TOPS Pregame Show at 7 p.m., or you can listen live on WGR 550. The puck drops at 7:30.