Just before the end of the Washington Capitals’ home schedule for the calendar year 2011, Alexander Ovechkin restored a little bit of order to the team’s individual statistics list. The captain’s breakaway goal with 5:50 remaining sealed a solid 3-1 win for the Caps over the Buffalo Sabres, and propelled Ovechkin past Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Chimera into the team lead in goals scored with 14.
The goal was Ovechkin’s second of the night, his sixth in the last 10 games, and gave the Capitals (19-15-2) and their fans some belief that maybe, just maybe, the highest-paid player on the team might be back to his old high-scoring ways.
“We just have to play it simple,” Ovechkin said after the game. “We made pretty plays by our simple plays.”
Ovechkin’s first goal came just 1:42 into the game on the simplest possible play in hockey. With Washington on a power play after Drew Weber was sent off for boarding Jason Chimera 27 seconds after the opening face-off, Ovechkin threw the puck at the net from the half-boards to the left of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. The shot hit the stick of well-meaning Buffalo defender Christian Ehrhoff and ricocheted over Miller’s shoulder and into the net for a 1-0 Washington lead.
The Capitals should have added at least two more to their advantage by the end of the first 20 minutes (they outshot Buffalo 11-2), but they were plagued by bad luck and poor finishing. What the Capitals lacked in goals, they made up for in physicality. Chimera, upset that Weber had only been sent off for two minutes instead of five for boarding him earlier in the period, took matters into his own hands (quite literally), and the two sparred for a few seconds before Weber pinned Chimera to the ice. Less than four minutes later, Troy Brouwer and Ehrhoff, long on opposite sides in the Western Conference with Chicago and Vancouver, respectively, renewed acquaintances with a brief scrap that ended with Brouwer driving Ehrhoff’s head dangerously close to the ice. Ehrhoff later left the game with an upper-body injury and did not return.
The Sabres (17-17-3) came back into the game in the second period, gradually applying more and more pressure on Tomas Vokoun. But they were caught on the break early in the second period as the Caps completed a beautiful passing play. Alexander Semin intercepted a pass intended for Robyn Regehr in Washington’s defensive zone and dropped the puck back to Ovechkin in neutral ice. Ovechkin found Roman Hamrlik at the left point. Hamrlik sent a pass back across to Semin, who held the puck as long as he could before quickly flipping a pass to a streaking Backstrom, who no one on Buffalo had bothered to pick up as the Swede came steaming down the slot.
The goal was Backstrom’s 100th in the NHL and made the score 2-0 at 3:52 of the second period.
The Sabres heightened their efforts and were rewarded at the 15:02 mark of the second after a long period of offensive zone pressure. Jochen Hecht got his stick on a loose puck before any of the Capitals could clear it and popped the only Buffalo goal of the night past a sprawling Vokoun. The goal was a just reward for the 15 shots the Sabres put on Vokoun in the second period and suddenly, the game was back in the balance after 40 minutes.
The Sabres pressed for a tying goal in the third period and almost got one in bizarre circumstances when Marcus Johansson inadvertently shot the puck dangerously close to Vokoun’s net. But for the final seven minutes of the period, the Caps slowly re-took control, and Ovechkin’s clinching goal was the final triumph for the reunited line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin, all of whom had two-point nights.
“They’re very good players,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said, “and they’ve played together before and we put back a checking line together (Hendricks-Beagle-Knuble) and we put a scoring line together. So, it’s just that combination, I guess.
“We have been struggling a little bit,” Backstrom said, ” and finally we get the stuff going and we’re moving the puck pretty good, we’re shooting and I think we are creating a lot of good chances. That’s what we gotta do. Then you have to make sure you play good defense and I think we are all doing that the last two games.”
The Capitals close 2011 Saturday night with a 7:00 p.m. road game against Columbus.
Caps Recall Eakin, Put Green on Injured Reserve
After Friday night’s game, the Capitals announced that Cody Eakin had been recalled from Hershey of the AHL and would join the team in Columbus. To make space for Eakin on the roster, the Capitals placed defenseman Mike Green (groin) on the injured reserve list retroactive to November 11. Dale Hunter announced before the game that Green would travel with the team to Columbus and might return to the lineup next week.