Alexander Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal with 1:41 remaining in overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres in a weird and wild game Saturday night at the Verizon Center. The win moved the Caps to the top of the Eastern Conference by one point over the idle Philadelphia Flyers, though Philadelphia does have a game in hand.
However thrilling the win was to the 18,398 fans who made up the 100th consecutive sellout crowd for a Capitals home game, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was in a less-than-celebratory mood at his postgame press conference.
“I’m concerned with the process of how we played,” Boudreau said, “I thought it was way too close to looking like last year.”
The Capitals appeared to be cruising after two goals against Buffalo backup Jhonas Enroth within the game’s first five minutes. First, Mike Knuble slammed home a rebound of John Carlson’s shot to complete a 2-on-1 breakaway just 37 seconds into the game. Then Alexander Semin gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead with just 4:41 gone as he knocked the puck over the goal line after Nicklas Backstrom’s shot from the slot came off the post, then off the back of Enroth and began trickling toward the net.
But the Capitals gave the lead right back through sloppy defending and goaltending. First Thomas Vanek was left completely alone in front of Michal Neuvirth’s net to redirect a shot past the Czech rookie at 6:30 of the first to make the score 2-1. Then came the most cringeworthy moment of Neuvirth’s evening, as Drew Stafford’s dump attempt from the left point deflected off a body in the high slot, knuckled to the ice, and bounced right between Neuvirth’s pads to tie the score at 2-2 with 10:32 still to play in the opening stanza.
“It was just a weird game,” said Capitals winger Mike Knuble. “It started really weird; five minutes in and it’s 2-2. You have to give them credit, they didn’t shut it down.”
In truth, the oddest thing was what happened after Buffalo’s second goal, when the pace of the game slowed to a relative crawl. The most notable thing to happen was the loss of defenseman’s Tyler Sloan’s services to the Capitals. The Calgary native did not return to the bench for the start of the third period and was described by Boudreau as being “day-to-day” after “[getting] his bell rung.” Boudreau and the Capitals know that they can not afford to lose any more defensemen in the run-up to the postseason. They were already without three of their top six defensemen entering Saturday’s game (Mike Green, Tom Poti and John Erskine) and were forced to cobble together a pairing of Sloan and Sean Collins, who had just been called up from Hershey hours earlier). Luckily, expectations are that Erskine will be available to the club in time for Tuesday night’s game at Toronto, and there remains a distinct possibility that both Green and Poti will be healthy enough to return for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. But between now and then, there is no question that Capitals fans will be watching for whatever limited medical information that the team makes available with a combination of hope and fear.
But if the Capitals defensive depth is lacking at the moment, the drive and determination was there in abundance from the forwards, and it showed in the final period. After Buffalo had taken a 3-2 lead on a pretty goal by Paul Gaustad with 7:25 left in regulation, the Capitals took advantage of a power play opportunity as Knuble deflected a shot by Brooks Laich past Enroth to tie the score at 3-3.
Then came Carlson’s most cringeworthy moment of the night, as he was caught too far up the ice on a penalty kill. In his haste to get back and cover Stafford’s centering pass, the rookie lost an edge and slid right into Neuvirth, knocking the puck into the net in the process. The score became 4-3 Buffalo with just 3:21 left.
But here, Bill McCreary, officiating his final NHL game after 27 years as a referee, intervened to save the Caps, calling a high-sticking penalty on Gaustad with 1:25 to go. With Neuvirth out of the net and the Capitals on a 6-on-4 power play, a shot from Ovechkin rebounded out to the side of the net to Jason Arnott, who was in the right place at the right time to backhand his 400th career goal into a wide open net with 51.3 seconds to go and sent the Verizon Center into hysterics.
“You can say what you want about the quality of the game at times, but it was fun,” Knuble said. “It was a fun one for the players and both teams couldn’t hold each other back. They are going to happen like that every once in a while and it was fun. Of course we would like to tighten up a bit, but I thought it was a fun hockey game.”
When told that his coach probably wouldn’t agree, Knuble responded “He needs to forget about it and move on,” with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Of course, Knuble knows that Boudreau won’t forget about it, not after last year. He also knows that however satisfying it was for Washington’s collective head to hit the pillow Saturday night at the top of the Eastern Conference, the win itself won’t answer any of the questions about the health of the defense, the composure of the goaltenders (though in fairness to Neuvirth, he did respond very well after allowing that dire second goal), and the scoring punch of the forwards. Only time, and playoff pressure, will be able to do that.