On Sunday night in Buffalo against the Sabres, the Washington Capitals put together a nearly perfect hockey game. The Capitals were disciplined and they were consistent. They dominated territorially, won more face-offs than their opponents, created scoring chances on the power play and in five-on-five play, and limited the amount of time they spent in their own end of the ice. But despite arguably their best all-round performance of the season, the Caps left town with but a single point.
Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller turned in a vintage performance, stopping 49 of 50 shots he faced on the night and setting aside all six Washington shootout attempts to help the Sabres steal a 2-1 shootout win on Sunday at First Niagara Center.
“We played okay as a team,” says Sabres coach Ted Nolan. “We played as well as we could tonight. Once in a while you need your goaltender to steal one and tonight he certainly did.
“That was worth the price of admission to watch goaltending like that. Very rarely do we get to see it live and tonight he was sensational.”
Caps coach Adam Oates concurred with Nolan’s assessment.
“There are games where your goalie steals games for you,” says Oates, “and I kind of look at that one as a game that their goalie [stole] for them.”
Washington had the better of the territorial play by a wide margin in the game’s first frame. The Caps led 15-3 in shots on net, 9-3 in even-strength shots on net and 22-13 in shot attempts over the game’s first 20 minutes. But as he has done so frequently for the Sabres this season, Miller kept his team in the game by keeping the puck out of the Buffalo net.
“They’re a skilled team,” says Miller of the Capitals. “They get open and I just try to keep myself in the crease a little more, just waiting for those passes to happen. It was just one of those nights where I could read it and it ended up working our for me most of the time there.”
The Capitals had one power play opportunity in the first period, getting several good looks, six shots on net and another bid from Alex Ovechkin that missed wide.
“We make good decisions with the puck and I think the power play was working today but we didn’t score,” rues Ovechkin. “[Miller] was on top of his game tonight.”
Caps winger Tom Wilson laid a hit on Buffalo forward Ville Leino late in the second period, and Buffalo forward Marcus Foligno took exception and fought Wilson in the wake of the play. For his trouble, Foligno was assessed a minor for instigating to put the Capitals on the power play once again.
Washington had two shots and a miss on its second man-advantage opportunity of the game.
The Sabres finally drew first blood late in the second period to take a 1-0 lead. Buffalo’s Brian Flynn won a draw at the Washington line against the Capitals’ Martin Erat, and the puck came back into the Caps’ end of the ice. Buffalo defenseman Christian Ehrhoff collected it along the left wing half wall and somewhat innocently put it toward the front of the net where Sabres’ winger Drew Stafford deflected it up and over the shoulder of Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer to put the home team up top by a 1-0 count with just 1:42 remaining in the second period.
Sunday’s game marked the latest the Caps had gone into any game this season without either team lighting the red lamp.
Despite its domination of the game, Washington entered the third period down a goal. The Caps kept at it, and at the 5:34 mark their persistence was rewarded.
Buffalo captain Steve Ott had the puck on his backhand along the wall in the Sabres end of the ice and was trying to make a play. Caps winger Eric Fehr checked Ott, and the puck squirted just a few feet away from Ott and Fehr. Washington pivot Mikhail Grabovski collected it and fired a centering pass for Troy Brouwer, whose one-timer eluded Miller on the stick side to make it a 1-1 game.
Both teams had chances to take the lead later, but there would be no more scoring in the actual hockey portion of the proceedings. Buffalo prevailed in the skills competition, which was prolonged when neither team’s skills were sufficient to settle it within the prescribed three rounds.
“We didn’t [take] any penalties in the offensive zone which was great,” says Oates. “I thought we played a pretty solid game. We didn’t give them many chances. Their goal was an iffy goal in terms of [whether it constituted a scoring] chance. I thought that both goalies played great and [Miller’s] got that reputation for a reason.”
Grubauer was great, but Miller was magnificent.
“He’s the best goalie in the league,” says Ott of Miller, “and I don’t say that lightly by any means. I really think that. He keeps us in there. Especially tonight; the team didn’t steal the game, Ryan Miller stole that game for us. That’s the difference, how world class he was for us tonight. We sneak out of there with a nice win and it feels good now going on the road.”
By night’s end, the Caps had doubled up (78-39) the Sabres in shot attempts for the game.
“It feels good,” says Miller. “It feels good when they stay out and you get a win like that. It’s nice.”
Point Taken – Washington trailed the game after two periods but still managed to take a point. The Caps are now 5-10-2 when trailing after 40 minutes, the fourth best record in the NHL under those circumstances.
Quiet Night – Grubauer has been with Washington for a month now, and his 17-shot workload in Sunday’s game was easily the lowest number of shots he has seen in his stint in the NHL this season. Grubauer has faced 40 or more shots in three of his seven starts for the Capitals this season and his previous low in shots faced was 29 on Dec. 23 in a 3-2 loss against Anaheim.
Buffalo didn’t record its first shot on goal in Sunday’s game until the 16th minute of the first period.
“It’s probably one of the tougher games for me,” admits Grubauer. “If you don’t get a lot of shots you always have to stay focused. Those are mentally probably the worst games.”
Grubauer is now 5-1-2 on the season with a 2.02 GAA and a .937 save pct.
Three Without – Ovechkin is now without a goal for three straight games, the first time he has gone three straight contests without scoring a goal since March 9-12. Ovechkin had four, four and zero shots on net; respectively, in those three goalless games last March.
In between those two three-game goal droughts, all the Caps’ captain did was score 53 goals in the 59 games in which he played.
Ovechkin had a dozen shots in Sunday’s game and two more that missed the net but wasn’t able to solve Miller. Sunday’s game marked the second time this season that Ovechkin cracked double digits in shots on goal for a game; he fired 11 shots on the Calgary cage in Washington’s home opener against the Flames on Oct. 3.
Sunday’s game marks the second straight game in which Ovechkin has reached the double digit level in shots on net against the Sabres. He had 10 shots (and one goal) against Buffalo when the two clubs last met here on March 30.
The last time Ovechkin fired more shots on goal than the dozen he launched at Miller on Sunday was on Oct. 15, 2009 when he scored twice with 13 shots against San Jose in a 4-1 Washington win over the Sharks at Verizon Center.
Fifty Not So Nifty – Sunday’s game marked the first time this season that the Capitals managed at least 15 shots on net in each of the game’s first two periods this season.
For good measure, the Caps added 15 more shots on net in the third and another five in overtime for an even 50 on the night.
Washington has reached the half-century mark in shots on goal twice this season, losing both games by identical 2-1 scores in the shootout.
The Capitals outshot the Maple Leafs by 50-28 in a 2-1 shootout loss in Toronto on Nov. 23.
Your intrepid Dump ‘n Chase correspondent can only research as far back as the 2002-03 season from his post in colder-than-a-good-man-can-bear Ottawa, but from then until now Washington is 0-2-3 in the five games in which it has managed 50 or more shots on goal in a regular season game.
Choir Boys – Washington’s penalty killing outfit got the night off on Sunday as the Capitals played 65 minutes without putting themselves shorthanded a single time. It was the first time in nearly two years the Caps managed to turn that trick.
The last time Washington went through a regular season game without needing to deploy its penalty killers was in a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center on Jan. 11, 2012.
“There were a couple ‘maybes,’” says Oates of the officiating in the game. “On a night like tonight, what I did like about it was they weren’t calling much early so they didn’t call much. It wasn’t like all of a sudden they started calling it. And usually you get a feeling early in the game of the way the game is going to go.”
Hot Hands – Brouwer’s goal was his eighth of the season, and it gives him seven points in his last six games (two goals, five assists).
“I thought Brouw played his best game that I’ve seen him play,” says Oates. “He’s played good lately; the line has played good. Their line played good tonight. Huge goal, they had a lot of chances. Good to see him get rewarded with a good one.”
Fehr wasn’t officially credited with an assist on the play, but the Caps believe he should earn a helper on the play and have petitioned the league to that effect. If he does earn an assist on the play, Fehr will have a four-game scoring streak (one goal, three assists). That run would match the longest of his career, a four-game spree (three goals, two assists) from Feb. 9-17 of this year.
With his assist on Brouwer’s goal, Grabovski has amassed 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in his last dozen games. With 30 points on the season, Grabovski is tied for 41st in the league in scoring.
Minute Management – The Caps had to play 65 minutes in Sunday’s game, a night before playing another contest against the Senators in Ottawa. Because only four of those 65 minutes were spent in special teams situations, Oates was able to spread the ice time more evenly than usual among his 18 skaters.
Despite spending five minutes in the box for his scrap with Foligno, rookie fourth line winger Wilson logged 8:24 on the night, the second-highest figure he has recorded in his last 10 games. Wilson ended up as the Caps’ low man on the ice time ledger.
On the low end of the blueline ice time spectrum, Steve Oleksy skated 17:12 in the game. That’s his highest total in the last 10 games. John Carlson paced the Caps with 24:12 in ice time, and he led Washington in that figure in 18 of the team’s last 20 games.
Miller Crime – Sunday’s game marked the 24th time this season that Miller has faced 30 or more shots in a game for the Sabres. It was the eighth time he was tested with 40 or more shots and the second time he saw as many as 50 shots in a game.
He has now permitted three or fewer goals in 11 straight games, allowing two or fewer tallies in eight of those contests.
Miller is now 5-1 in the shootout this season. His lone loss in the skills competition came in his previous start, on Friday night against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
Miller has played light years better than his 10-18-1 record this season would indicate, and it seems like a virtual certainty that he'll be part of the 2014 U.S. Olympic team when the roster is announced on Wednesday. Rumors circulated on Sunday that Miller had locked down a spot on the Olympic squad along with Detroit's Jimmy Howard and the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick.
“I’ve got nothing boys," responded Miller when asked to comment on those rumors. "I’d say that’s a little bit jumping the gun. I’ll check my messages. But I haven’t heard anything. We’ll have to see what they say in a few days.
“It’s not up to me. It depends on what they think they want to go with. I think with my experience in tournament play, I think I’ve been pretty good in tournament play over my career starting back in juniors and college. Those short sequences where you get into a week and a half or two weeks, I’d like to think it’s something I’m pretty good at. Hopefully that’s something they value as an asset and we’ll find out in a few days. But it’s a selection that I don’t have much say in other than my performance and that’s evaluated and we’ll see how it goes.”
That’s Two – Sunday’s game marked just the ninth time in 39 games this season that Buffalo scored the game’s first goal. It also marked just the second time in those nine times the Sabres scored first that the game ended with Buffalo getting two points. The Sabres’ 2-4-3 record when scoring the game’s first goal is the worst in the NHL.
By The Numbers – Only three Capitals (Erat, Aaron Volpatti and Dmitry Orlov) did not register a shot on goal in Sunday’s game … Orlov’s 23:12 workload is the most he has assumed in any game this season. Orlov logged 23:08 at even-strength to pace the Capitals in that department … Erskine led the Caps with four blocked shots, all in the game’s first period … Jay Beagle won six of eight face-offs (75%) for Washington … Stafford accounted for four of Buffalo’s 17 shots on goal … Ott led the Sabres with eight hits and won seven of nine (78%) face-offs in the game.