Alex Ovechkin finally gets off the schneid. (Clydeorama)
The Washington Capitals became the final team in the National Hockey League to win a game Sunday afternoon, defeating the Buffalo Sabres by a 3-2 margin inside Verizon Center. Getting goals from Joel Ward, John Erskine, and Alex Ovechkin, the Caps came back from an early 1-0 hole by scoring three unanswered goals. The Sabres drew within one late, but 22 saves, many of them big, from Michal Neuvirth kept them at bay and won Adam Oates his first game as a head coach.
As has been a common thread in their games so far, the Capitals were awarded the first power play of the evening after less than a minute, but another futile effort with the man advantage kept Washington from opening the scoring for the first time this season. The next eight minutes were characterized by chances for both teams until the Sabres capitalized just past the ten-minute mark. Taking advantage of another John Carlson turnover in the neutral zone, Tyler Ennis streaked in and shoved a backhander through Michal Neuvirth on the ice surface. Desperate to gain some footing after another bad start, the Capitals came back hard and almost tied the game three minutes later when Nicklas Backstrom rang the iron from the top of the left circle.
Washington would get their equalizer soon after as Joel Ward cleaned up a rebound in front following a dominant shift from his line. Washington continued to buzz around Ryan Miller’s net after the goal, but lost that momentum when John Erskine took a tripping call late in the period with 30 seconds left. They killed off the initial 30 seconds on the minor before the period ended.
The Capitals succeeded in killing off the remainder of that power play to kick off the second period, and used that momentum to take the lead with three and a half minutes gone. John Erskine collected a puck at the point and threw it on net, where it deflected past Miller. A power play after that goal yielded nothing, but Washington continued to pressure and hit another post, this time off the stick of Mike Ribeiro. Throughout the remainder of the frame, solid defensive zone play and some good saves from Neuvirth kept the lead intact as the Capitals led at an intermission for the first time all season.
Buffalo came out hard in the third, trying to knock the Capitals off their game and steal the momentum back. But Neuvirth was there early, making some big saves, including one on Mikhail Grigorenko inside the opening 120 seconds. The Sabres then took a delay of game penalty by putting the puck over the glass, and Washington capitalized with a one-time Alex Ovechkin power play goal from the top of the left circle. But the Caps refused to make it easy, as Joey Crabb gave the Sabres a power play soon after, and it was more good penalty killing and goaltending that kept their two-goal lead intact. At the halfway mark of the period, though the Sabres cut the lead in half with a Marcus Foligno goal in front. The visitors continued to press as the game wound down, but Washington was able to hang on.
John Carlson had another rough game, getting beat all over the ice and making bad decisions with and without the puck. The Caps’ third-year man, fresh off signing his six-year, nearly $24 million contract this summer, has underwhelmed defensively but has also been on the ice for a lot of Washington’s goals for as well, so it’s not all bad. He will get better. He’s too good not to.
Mike Green looks great. Finally fully healthy after a full offseason of rest and rehab, he is seeing a lot of ice and making good use of it. The points are not coming in waves, but Green is involved in the offensive side of the ice and continues to improve defensively. It’s only a matter of time before he and the power play get clicking.
Michal Neuvirth put up his third consecutive strong game, playing very well in all three periods but particularly in the second and third, giving his team a chance to win the game. This on the heel of a point-saving game on Friday and a good game Thursday, Neuvirth is proving what I said over the summer to be correct: the Capitals will need both goaltenders this year, and maybe, just maybe, Mikey is the one who is better.
The Capitals will practice tomorrow morning at Kettler before heading to Ottawa to play the Senators on Tuesday night.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.