Alex Ovechkin stood at the blue line all by himself. There wasn’t a Buffalo Sabres penalty-killer within 20 feet of him. All he had to do was stop Keith Aucoin’s hard-around pass and keep the blue line. Unpressured, Ovechkin reached down casually with the backhand of his heavily curved blade. The puck ticked off the blade, then his skate, and careened out of the zone and toward center ice.
The fumble gave Sabres captain Jason Pominville (Buffalo’s leading goal scorer) time to catch up to Ovechkin and the puck near the red line. Ovechkin tried to backhand the puck against the boards, but only managed to fling the puck closer to his own goal. At that point, with Ovechkin losing his balance, Pominville — who gives up three inches and 45 pounds to Ovechkin — outmuscled the two-time Hart Trophy winner for the puck and streaked into the Caps zone, now on a two-on-one with Derek Roy against Dennis Wideman.
Pominville put the breaks on hard at the right wing face-off dot, which seemed to confuse both Wideman and goalie Michal Neuvirth. The Buffalo captain put his snap shot high glove-side for his 29th goal of the season, and all Neuvirth could do was look behind him to retrieve the puck.
Instead of the Caps clawing back into a game their coach called a “Game 7″ with a power play goal that would have cut the lead at the time to one goal, the complete opposite happened and the Caps found themselves down by three. The shorty was a complete back-breaker.
“The goal on the short-handed — I should play [the puck with] my skate, not stick, but it happens,” Ovechkin said. “This mistake probably cost us the game.”
The short-handed goal put the game all but out of reach with 2:28 remaining in the second period. It also, for all intent and purposes, took the Capitals playoff destiny out of their own hands.
With the 5-1 final, the Washington Capitals now find themselves in ninth place in the conference, trailing Buffalo by two points with five games remaining. The Florida Panthers won in a shootout, stretching their lead in the Southeast Division — and the No. 3 seed in the conference — to five points, with a game in-hand over the Caps.
For the first time in a long time, the Washington Capitals are no longer in control of their own playoff destiny. They have to win and the teams ahead of them — Florida, Ottawa or Buffalo — have to lose.
To be sure, Ovechkin’s gaffe wasn’t the only poor play in the game – far from it. The Caps repeatedly gave Buffalo extra chances in their end, with starting goalie Braden Holtby’s juicy rebounds almost acting like passes back to Sabres forwards.
It didn’t help that the first goal came directly off Holtby trying a no-look pass from behind his own goal — to Jeff Schultz. Schultz couldn’t catch the pass, which ended up on the stick of Brad Boyes, who flicked the puck to Cody McCormick, alone in the crease against an out-of-position Holtby.
A second goal (with 1:55 left in the first) came off a bad poke check attempt by the young netminder. The third came, just 2:31 into the second period, as a result of a big rebound — and no defenseman to clear it. At that point, Holtby got the hook.
Alexander Semin put a wicked wrist shot off a face-off past Ryan Miller a couple of minutes later, injecting some much-needed life into the Caps, and the home part of the bi-partisan crowd. That life ended with the short-handed goal.
It’s on to Boston Thursday night, where the Caps won their last meeting with the Bruins. Can they pull it off again? They are capable of it, but this team is so unpredictable that no one can guess which Caps team will show up. It’s been that way all season, really, so why should the last five games be any different?
CAPS NOTES: John Carlson was minus-3, on the ice for Buffalo’s first three goals. Schultz, his partner to start, was minus-2 and played just 5:07, disappearing in the second and third periods as the Caps tried to get back in the game.
Despite his goal, Semin was minus-3 as well.
The Capitals out-shot (45-31), out-hit (26-13), and out-drew (62% face-offs) the Sabres.
Before the game, GM George McPhee told the media Nicklas Backstrom passed a baseline neuropsychological exam and the center would return when he feels ready. “We’re not going to put any pressure on him to play. He’s got to be comfortable and we’re not going to put this kid at risk by telling him we need him to play.”
“He’s a grownup and he knows how he feels,” McPhee continued. “He’ll make the decision as to whether he plays or not.”
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.