Two nights after a bad beat against the Panthers in Florida, the Caps came home and got right. Evgeny Kuznetsov staked them to a 1-0 lead in the game’s first minute, and the Caps were never really threatened thereafter. Philipp Grubauer stopped 28 of 29 shots to earn his second win over the Sabres this week, and he had the luxury of playing with the lead for more than 59 minutes.
“It was nice of Kuzy, getting us going there with the first shot,” says Grubauer, “and from then on we didn’t look back. Everybody played great. We were tracking back and backchecking. The boys made it really easy in front of me again, and it was a good game.”
The Caps grabbed an early lead in this one, kept it, protected it and added to it. Before the game was a minute old, Washington had a 1-0 lead it would not relinquish.
From behind the Washington net, Dmitry Orlov sent a breakout feed to Brett Connolly in neutral ice. Connolly bumped it to Kuznetsov, who collected it at virtually full gallop and carried into Buffalo ice. He carved his way around Sabres winger Jason Pominville, and managed to lure Sabres goalie Robin Lehner out to the Wheaton/Silver Spring area before tucking the puck behind him for a 1-0 Caps lead, just 50 seconds after opening puck drop.
Grubauer’s workload was spread out rather evenly, but he did have to make some stops from the middle of the ice. The Washington netminder gobbled up virtually everything cleanly, leaving nothing in the way of second chances for the Sabres.
Just past the midpoint of the second period, the Caps finally doubled their lead, doing so on a dazzling end-to-end rush goal from Andre Burakovsky, his second such goal in a span of 10 days.
Burakovsky took a pass from Kuznetsov along the half wall in his own end, and started from almost a dead stop. He powered past Pominville and turned up the jets as he blazed through neutral ice. Gaining the Buffalo line, he drove the middle of the ice through a quartet of white-sweatered Sabres, sending the puck through Lehner’s five-hole with a one-handed sweep as he reached the top of the paint.
“When I got the puck from Kuz,” recounts Burakovsky, “I was just trying to beat the first guy [Pominiville], who was kind of standing still. I just wanted to skate around him. And when I came through the neutral zone, I saw the [defense] was really, really wide and they were not controlling the middle at all. So I was just trying to get it in there and at the end there, I was just trying to make a move.
“Sometimes, I’m lucky. I’m playing with some confidence right now, I’m feeling good with the puck. I think I had a lot of other opportunities tonight, and it’s kind of crazy that a goal like that goes in, because I think I could have had some other shots that could be goals and not this one. But I’ll take it.”
Buffalo cut the Caps’ lead in half on a nifty Sam Reinhart backhander to the shelf just 14 seconds into the third, but that would be the high-water mark for the Sabres on this night.
Washington did not get its first – and as it turned out, only – power play chance until the 8:43 mark of the third, but the Caps displayed some killer instinct in that situation, taking advantage of the extra man opportunity to put the Sabres away.
The Caps started the power play with the second unit, and that group was strong in keeping the heat on and generating chances, and perhaps softening up the Sabres for the big boys. Alex Ovechkin and company came on, and Kuznetsov and John Carlson combined to get him the puck in his left dot office. From there, Ovechkin whipped a wrist shot to the top far corner of the cage to make it a 3-1 game at 10:13 of the third.
Washington killed off a Buffalo power play and then extended its lead to 4-1 on Lars Eller’s long distance empty-net goal, his third goal in as many games, with 2:12 remaining.
With Lehner back in the cage, Ovechkin notched his second of the night and 36
th of the season, deflecting a Carlson shot home at 18:36 to account for the 5-1 final.
“I thought Grubi played really well when he had to,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We got a couple of big penalty kills and we got a big power-play goal. I thought Burky’s goal was really good. We did a lot of good things. We can still clean up our game.”
Buffalo came into Saturday’s game with points in each of its last six road games (5-0-1), but the Sabres were chasing the Caps from the first minute of this one.
“I thought we didn’t check well enough to take away their speed,” says Sabres coach Phil Housley. “There were some guys who weren’t ready to play tonight. It was obvious. Right off the drop of the puck we lose coverage on a set forecheck, and let a guy go.
“We get back into the game with a goal early in the third, and it gave us some life. I would have liked to see us respond a little bit more. And we can’t give up that power-play goal; it’s 3-1 at that point. I just felt that they did have some speed at times, but that just goes along with our checking. Too many guys carrying the puck right up the middle of the ice and creating offense when we should be deflecting everything to the outside.”