In a game rife with playoff implications for both teams, the Buffalo Sabres humiliated the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center last night, handing the home team a resounding 5-1 defeat in front of a large contingent of boisterous Buffalo fans. Coming into the game tied in the standings with Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot, the Caps were out played at both ends of the ice and failed to mount a serious challenge.
With just five regular season games remaining before the playoffs begin, the Capitals are now on the outside looking in. The Caps face the top three teams in the Eastern Conference (Rangers, Bruins and Panthers) as well as recent playoff nemeses Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Washington will have to win nearly all of its remaining games and hope that some higher teams falter down the stretch.
Both teams had good scoring chances early on, and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Washington’s Braden Holtby traded fantastic saves. But the rookie Holtby was responsible for the first Buffalo goal on an errant clearing attempt behind his own net. He shot the puck directly to Sabre Brad Boyes who relayed it to the front of the net for Cody McCormick for an easy goal. The Caps defense began to unravel, allowing second chances and unable to keep up with the hot Buffalo wings. Ten minutes later Holtby made a great initial save followed by a spectacular rebound save, but no Caps defender picked up the net-crashing Drew Stafford who was able to tap in the third-chance opportunity to make it 2-0.
Buffalo fans were out in force, and they had a lot to cheer about as the game went on. The Sabres – one of the two hottest teams in the league over the past 20 games – were schooling the Caps all over the ice. The slot in from of the Caps goal was a free-fire zone all night with plenty of second and third chances. The Buffalo slot, by contrast, was a black hole where pucks disappeared and red shirts were ejected. Any shots that got through to the net were easily gobbled up by Miller. The Caps could not connect on open-ice passes or even execute their basic chip-and-chase game plan. The Buffalo offense, on the other hand, was completely in sync with quick counter-attacks, deft passing and accurate shots. The Sabres had open passing lanes all night while the Caps couldn’t seem to find each other.
When yet another rebound ended up in the back of the net behind Holtby early in the second period, Caps coach Dale Hunter tried to change the game by changing goaltenders. Michal Neuvirth came into the game, and a few key saves seemed to energize the team. “I did it for a change of momentum,” said Hunter after the game. “It seemed to give us some jump.”
But the Sabres scored a short-handed goal late in the second period to cut short the Caps comeback attempt. It was a “battle of the captains” when Buffalo captain Jason Pominville stripped the puck from Caps’ captain Alex Ovechkin at center ice, then calmly walked in on Neuvirth and placed the puck in the lower corner of the net to make it 4-1. It was a moment that perfectly captured the ineptitude of the Caps and the poise and execution of the Sabres as they continue their march to the post-season.
In the third period, Buffalo showed Washington how to play with the lead, effectively spreading the ice and creating odd-man rushes when the Caps blueliners pinched down the boards on offense. A well-execute 3-on-1 pass from Tyler Ennis to Stafford closed out the scoring half way through the third period. By this time the Sabre faithful were chanting “Let’s go, Buff-a-lo!” There was no reply as the Caps fans had yielded the arena.