WASHINGTON–A relieved Adam Oates walked into the press room at Verizon Center Sunday, after having earned his first NHL victory as a head coach with the Washington Capitals topping the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in a matinee.
For Capitals fans who saw the team stumble out of the gate with an 0-3-1 start to the year, it certainly was a welcome change. Washington rallied from an early Tyler Ennis goal to even the score by the end of the period thanks to a Joel Ward tally, then added a John Erskine goal in the second and Alex Ovechkin’s first goal of the season in the third on a one-timer.
Afterwards, Ward said he felt the team was building off Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey.
“I thought the confidence was there, I thought the mood was upbeat even though we lost in OT,” he said in a happy locker room. “I thought we brought the momentum again today and slowly picked at them and kind of wore them down a little bit.
“They came out pretty hard in the first, and hats off to them, but it was good for us.”
After Ennis’ goal just before the halfway point of the first, Ward was able to help swing momentum around with some hard work in front of the net – and a nice bounce off the side of the net out front.
When the puck deflected off a Jason Chimera feed out front off the side of the cage, Ward pounced on the loose puck and beat Miller with a shot, and the Capitals – who had tended to struggle when playing from behind in their first four games – gained some confidence.
Early in the second, Washington took its first lead since Tuesday night against Winnipeg when John Erskine floated a puck past Miller 3:18 into the second period. It was Erskine’s first NHL goal since April 5, 2011.
“I was going to unleash the big cannon first, but he got in the lane, so I just threw a little muffin,” Erskine joked.
“Erskine shoots a lot harder than that I know,” Ward said. “He’s got a heck of a shot, which is key to have and getting pucks through. I think Erskine’s shot is pretty underrated, people don’t give him credit for it.
“He’s got one of the hardest shots here for sure. He’s a big guy, you don’t want to be the guy blocking a guy who’s covered in that many tattoos like that. Erskine, my hat’s off to him, he’s been playing hard the last few games. It’s good for him to get his confidence up too.”
“[Erksine] threw it to the net and found a way to make things happen,” Chimera said. “You’ve got to do those. Once you start working hard, those ones seem to bounce your way.”
Armed with a lead heading into the third period, Ovechkin, who had been limited to just one assist in the Capitals’ first four games – blasted a one-timer off a Mike Green feed past Miller to end his drought.
“I knew it was going to come sooner or later,” Ovechkin said. “I feel pretty good, all the games I feel comfortable, and I feel my skates and stick.”
“I thought Ovi played well today,” Oates said. “He obviously could have had a couple [of goals] in the first, and had a chance in the second. He scored a big goal for us, and then could have had an empty netter. So I hope he would look it like ‘Yeah, I had a lot of good chances.”
Buffalo made things close at the end just over the halfway point of the third, as Marcus Foligno scored on Neuvirth to cut the lead to 3-2.
Fortunately, for Washington, the Sabres couldn’t draw any closer, but it wasn’t without some drama as Ovechkin hit the post on an empty-net chance in the game’s final minute.
“It was good finally,” Oates said. “Ovi made it a bit closer than anticipated [hitting the post with the Sabres' net empty]. I said ‘Oh no, not now.’”
Neuvirth, who was strong in Friday’s loss to the Devils, was happy to get the win.
“Finally we got the win, and that is all that matters,” Neuvirth said. “We are extremely happy, but tomorrow is another day and another game on Tuesday [at Ottawa] and we’ve got to be ready.”
For raw audio from the postgame locker room, please click here.
Ted Starkey is a Contributor to District Sports Page. Ted is a veteran sportswriter who works for SB Nation Washington, and has written for The Washington Times, Tampa Tribune, AOL Sports, USAHockey.com and BuffaloBills.com, along with a pair of books on the Capitals, Red Rising and Transition Game. He has covered the NHL, NFL and MLB, along with the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics and several Stanley Cup and Calder Cup playoffs. You can follow him on Twitter @TedStarkey.