Dec. 29 vs. Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center
Time: 5:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (20-14-4)
Buffalo Sabres (10-24-4)
Washington pays the first of its two visits to Buffalo this season on Sunday afternoon, taking on the Sabres to start off a set of road games on back-to-back nights. The game is the middle match of three in four nights for the Capitals in the immediate aftermath of their three-day holiday break.
Coming into Sunday’s game fresh from a 3-2 home ice win over the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Friday, the Caps are seeking to put together regulation wins in consecutive games for just the second time this season.
Eric Fehr’s goal with just over five minutes remaining in regulation enabled the Caps to defeat the Rangers, extending Washington’s lead for the second-place spot in the Metropolitan Division to six points over the Rangers and others. Rookie Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer put together a 38-save performance to earn his second win in as many starts against the Rangers this month, and to run his record to 5-1-1 on the season.
The turning point of the contest came late in the second period with the game all even at 1-1. Washington spent a couple of long shifts in its own end of the ice, dodging bullets, dealing with adversity and desperately trying to shift the tides of momentum or to simply clear the puck from its own zone long enough to get a line change. Thanks to some great stops from Grubauer, the Caps were able to weather that storm and were able to come right back and get the go-ahead goal with 65 seconds remaining in the second period.
Washington has had spells like that all season where it has had difficulty moving the puck out of its own end, and often the result is disastrous. In Friday’s game, the Caps were able to finally shift the territorial tide and to get a key regulation win against a divisional foe. And they did so immediately following the three-day NHL holiday break.
“I was worried that fatigue would take its toll in the second half of the game and that would affect the mental decisions with the puck,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “[The Rangers] played a good game, that’s a fact and you’ve got to give their team credit. They’re in your face at times too, and it turns into execution. It’s amazing how many times that it turns into, ‘Where did you put the puck for the next guy?’
“Whether it’s a good play or an average play, a bad pass can turn into icing when a guy is open and an icing can turn into five minutes in your own end. That’s a mental mistake, an icing when you’ve got no one on you. That’s nothing but pure frustration as a coach. Because we could end up getting a penalty, they score a goal and before you know it we had a lousy game. Over an icing!
“Every team has it. It’s the state of the league. It’s details and we talk about them all the time and we talk about them ad nauseum for the guys where we’re trying to figure out ways of saying the same thing. The other team has their moments for sure, and we have our moments. It’s those other situations, where what do we do with the puck to have more of those moments?”
Oates also noted that both of those lengthy defensive zone shifts were aided by a Caps player breaking his stick and being sans weapon until his teammates could corral and clear the puck.
“Obviously even at the time,” says Caps center Jay Beagle, “we’re all on the bench and knowing and thinking and some of us saying, ‘Let’s turn the momentum back our way here.’ We obviously can’t spend the whole night in our zone and we can’t leave it to Grubi to keep us in the game.
“A goalie helps bail you out but you don’t want to have a couple of shifts where he has to make four or five amazing saves just to keep it out of the back of the net. It’s obviously tough luck when you get a broken stick in the d-zone because you’re basically down a man, it’s 5-on-4 and you’re going to be in your zone for a little bit unless you can get the puck right away and get it out. But usually the other team can hem you in there. It showed some resilience from our goalie and all the way through our lineup.
“A couple of shifts in our zone, we had no momentum, and then Backy gets that shot and he buries it and momentum is back in our hands just from that one goal. But we’ve got to find ways where we don’t leave it up to the goaltender. We’ve done that to [goaltender Braden] Holtby a few times in a few games. I don’t think it’s a mental breakdown, but we’ve got to find a way to switch the momentum right away. After one shift in our zone, we’ve got to go play a shift in their zone and make sure that we’re playing a tough game and bringing it to them – especially in our rink – that we’re taking it to them.
“We don’t want to sit back ever and have them take it to us for a couple of shifts. And I think that was our pushback, from Backy. He get that shot, he buries it and we roll from there.”
With 44 points, Washington is six points up on a group of four teams – Philadelphia, Columbus, the Rangers and New Jersey – clustered together in third place with 38 points. Carolina is just behind that bunch with 37 and the New York Islanders are bringing up the rear with 29.
Starting with Sunday’s game against the Sabres and carrying through until the end of January, the Capitals will play 12 of their next 17 games on the road. Washington is 7-6-3 on the road this season, and the Caps are 5-2-3 in their last 10 contests away from the District.
“We have done pretty well,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward of the team’s performance on the road. “We’ve got a good road game going; I still think we can do a better job at home. I don’t know what the reason is. But if we can keep up that success and keep it simple, get engaged early in the game try to get the first one we’ll do well.”
Washington is slightly ahead of its road pace from the 2012-13 campaign. The Caps finished last season with a 12-10-2 mark on the road, and they didn’t win their seventh road game until their 17th game away from Verizon Center (7-9-1).
These two nights on the road mark the first two consecutive nights that the Caps have been away from their own beds since a journey to Phoenix and Colorado for a set of back-to-backs on the road on Nov. 9-10.
“We definitely had a nice home stretch,” says Beagle. “It’s going to be a good test for us. We’ve got a lot of road games. Obviously when the schedule comes out, you see this and know that it’s going to be a tougher month. I think we’re looking forward to the challenge and we’re getting ready to go to work on the road.”
Buffalo is last in the NHL with an average of just 1.71 goals per game. That’s two fewer goals per game than league-leading Chicago (3.70) and almost half a goal per game under 29th-place Minnesota (2.18).
Looking at the Buffalo lineup, it’s difficult to understand how they’ve struggled so much to light the lamp this season. The Sabres’ top line features a guy (Matt Moulson) who has had multiple 30-goal seasons in the NHL and another (Tyler Ennis) who has scored 20 in the league. Buffalo’s second line has a prior 20-goal scorer (Steve Ott) and a prior 30-goal guy (Drew Stafford). The Sabres’ third line has a pair of guys (Marcus Foligno and Ville Leino) who have scored at least 17 goals in an NHL campaign.
The Sabres wobbled out to a 3-15-1 start that resulted in the firing of head coach Ron Rolston; Ted Nolan is the Sabres’ new bench boss. The Sabres are 3-1-1 in their last five games and they are 4-2-2 in their last eight. Since Nolan was installed behind the Buffalo bench on Nov. 13, the Sabres are 6-9-3.
Buffalo dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Friday night.
“We watched the second half of their game [Friday] night,” says Oates. “Obviously you have to be really careful that you don’t take them too lightly. They’ve won a bunch of their last eight games and they were in the game [Friday] night. They tied it up late. They’re playing freer and looser, and sometimes that’s dangerous. Anybody can beat anybody, that’s really the attitude that you have to have.”
Like the Capitals, Buffalo gives up a lot of shots on net. The Sabres have permitted an average of 34.4 shots against per game this season; only Washington (35.2) and Toronto (36) are worse in that regard.
Veteran goaltender Ryan Miller has been excellent as Buffalo’s last line of defense. Although is 9-17-1 record is not impressive, his 2.76 GAA for this Sabres team is, and his .924 save pct. is well above his career mark of .915.
In seven December starts, Miller is 4-2-1 with a 1.95 GAA and a .942 save pct. He has allowed three or fewer goals in 11 straight starts, permitting two or fewer tallies in seven of those games.
After Sunday’s single home game against the Capitals, the Sabres depart for a two-game trip out west to visit Winnipeg (Dec. 31) and Minnesota (Jan. 2). The Caps will follow the Sabres into St. Paul to face the Wild on Jan. 4.