WASHINGTON – Bodies were falling, and the tide was starting to turn against them. So who better to step up and take control of the situation for the Buffalo Sabres than their captain.
Jason Pominville’s shorthanded goal at 17:32 of the second period took the air out of the Verizon Center, and proved to be the decisive blow in Buffalo’s 5-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Drew Stafford scored twice and Ryan Miller turned aside a season-high 44 shots in Buffalo’s fifth straight win, putting them all alone in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 86 points – two ahead of Washington.
With Robyn Regehr in the box for hooking and momentum starting to shift towards the Capitals late in the second, Alexander Ovechkin played a bouncing puck a little too casually at the point. As it rolled behind him, Pominville gave chase and outworked Ovechkin all the way down the right boards before scooping up the puck and beating Michal Neuvirth with a low wrister to the far side.
“It was huge for him to outbattle Ovechkin there. Anytime you can get a shorthanded goal that can sway the momentum for you big time,” said Stafford. “It’s tough for a power play to give up one like that. So for Jason to bury that one, that was big for us. They seemed like they had a little bit of life at that time in the game, so it was big for us.”
Ovechkin admitted later that he didn’t make the right play.
“I should play the puck with my skate, not my stick. But it happens.”
What made the goal even bigger was the fact that Buffalo was down a pair of defensemen at the time. Christian Ehrhoff had already left the game after the first period with a lower body injury, and Andrej Sekera missed a good portion of the second period after blocking a shot with his foot. Lindy Ruff joked later that if Sekera hadn’t returned, Cody McCormick was his next option on defense.
“Anytime we get a lead we tend to play a little bit better,” said Jordan Leopold. “But of course losing two of our better d-men, that made the situation tougher. You’ve gotta give a hand to our forwards who did a good job helping, making our job easier. That’s a big reason why we’ve won a lot of hockey games. Our forwards are helping out a lot more defensively. We’ve hunkered down a bit and been able to score on our opportunities.”
With only five games left in the regular season, Ruff wasn’t optimistic about Ehrhoff’s playing status for the next 10 days.
“Obviously he didn’t finish the game, but we’ll have our doctors evaluate him. It looks like he’ll miss a little bit of time. It’s something we’ll get evaluated further tomorrow.”
Stafford and McCormick each scored in the first period to stake Buffalo to an early 2-0 lead. It was McCormick’s first goal of the year, making him the 30th Sabre to score a goal this season. That ties the franchise record set in 1986-87 and matched in 1987-88 and 1991-92.
Thomas Vanek put the Sabres up by three at 2:31 of the second period with a goal that chased Washington starter Braden Holtby. But the lead was cut to 3-1 when Alexander Semin scored right off a faceoff just under three minutes later. Pominville’s shorty sent Buffalo to the locker room up 4-1 after two, and then Stafford added his second of the night for good measure at 9:29 of the third when he converted Tyler Ennis’ pass on yet another odd-man rush for one the league’s hottest lines.
Buffalo frustrated Ovechkin throughout the night, limiting him to just four low-chance shots in 25:07 of ice time. Miller said keeping the Washington sniper off the scoresheet and away from open ice was just another key to the win.
“That was our game plan. We were good in the neutral zone, our gap control was good. He cut inside one time but everybody collapsed on him, and he hurried something and tried to go five hole. Fortunately I got my stick on it,” said Miller, who is 14-1-4 over his last 19 games. “But from there we forced him and pressured him. He likes to cut inside and we had great pressure with the third man that allowed our d to get close to him and frustrate him.”
The win improves Buffalo to 14-2-4 since February 17, trailing just Pittsburgh for the second-best record in the league during this period. They are also 7-1-2 in their last 10, and 19-5-5 in their last 29 games since a 4-2 loss in St. Louis on January 21.
Patrick Kaleta was back in the lineup tonight after missing the past three games with an upper body injury. Already sporting a cast on his right hand, Kaleta played 8:07 of ice time and blocked a shot with the same hand in the second period. He went to the bench in obvious discomfort but never missed a shift.
Buffalo is now off until Friday when they’ll host Pittsburgh in their penultimate home game of the regular season. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
1-0 BUF: McCormick capitalizes on a mistake by Schultz in front, and slides it past Holtby. (8:45)… 2-0 BUF: Stafford follows up his own shot and bangs home the puck, after some great work in the corner by Ennis (18:05) … Shots: WASH-10, BUF-15
3-0 BUF: Vanek follows up the Hodgson shot and rebound, and unloads a rocket from the slot (2:31)… 3-1: Right off the faceoff, Semin beats Miller with a tricky wrister. (5:07)… 4-1 BUF: Ovechkin coughs up the puck at point, and then Pominville outworks him down the right boards and fires a past Neuvirth. (17:32, SH)… Shots: WASH-16, BUF-10
5-1 BUF: Stafford jumps into the play and one-times the slick Ennis pass into the gaping cage. (9:29)… Shots: WASH-19, BUF-6
SABRES NOTES: Buffalo has outscored its opposition 22-6 during their five-game streak… The Sabres haven’t won five straight since a six-game winning streak from Dec. 29/09-Jan.8/10… The win was Buffalo's first in Washington since April 3, 2009, and clinched a 3-1-0 season-series record against the Capitals. It's their first series win over Washington since a 3-1-0 mark in 2007-08... Miller has started nine in a row, and 19 of Buffalo’s last 20 games… Mike Weber (healthy), Nathan Gerbe (upper body) and Matt Ellis (knee) were Buffalo’s scratches… With the return of Kaleta tonight, Travis Turnbull was returned to Rochester (AHL) earlier today.