The Caps won a hockey game Sunday afternoon, and you could argue the seeds of that victory were sown in New Jersey in the third period Friday night. The team scrapped and clawed and sacrificed to get a point against the Devils in that one, and the structure they used to do it was evident in a 3-2 win over Buffalo.
The Sabres came into D.C. having lost two games in succession to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Caps were winless in four overall, and entered the day the only team in the Eastern Conference without a win to their credit.
That would change, but it would not come easily for Washington. The Caps had several good scoring chances in the opening minutes of the first period, but did not beat Ryan Miller in goal for Buffalo. Nicklas Backstrom had the Sabre goalie dead to rights in that stretch and snapped a strong shot past him that clanged off the crossbar.
The Sabres, despite playing without their injured big gun Thomas Vanek, would get on the board first. Working on a quick-developing 3-on-2 break, Tyler Ennis would convert with a deke to his backhand that foiled Neuvirth. Ennis received a soft back pass from Steve Ott, then did his damage while a back-checking Joey Crabb was only inches away from him.
Washington would fight back to tie the game before the opening frame was complete. Jason Chimera was stationed in the corner, along the goal line, when he swept the puck toward the goal guarded by Miller. It turned out to be the perfect bank shot to the slot where Joel Ward was free to ram home his team-leading third goal of the season.
Much has been made of the Caps not enjoying very much in the way of a lead through their first four games. That situation would be remedied in the second period, and by an unlikely source. John Erskine played another solid game today, much like he did Friday in Jersey. He gave his club the added bonus of the tie-breaking goal at 3:18 of period two.
A long-range wrist shot from Erskine floated through traffic before glancing off Sabre center Cody Hodgson and then past a startled Miller. Verizon Center erupted with the home team finally in front with a lead they would not surrender.
There were very few penalties in this game, and nowhere near as many power-plays as the Caps had enjoyed at Prudential Center Friday. When a man-advantage did materialize in the third period, the Capitals would hit pay-dirt.
Mike Green had been saying that prior to today he and Alex Ovechkin where just a hair off target with their point passes to one another on the power-play. They were on the same page and deadly accurate at 5:11 of the third period. Green put his cross-ice feed right in the wheelhouse for Ovechkin, who hammered his first of the year past Miller with great velocity.
A 3-1 lead at home with 15 minutes to go felt safe until the Sabres decided to make it interesting. 21-year old Marcus Foligno camped out on the doorstep in front of Neuvirth and smacked home a short-range rebound with 9:47 left in regulation.
The Capitals played it wisely from there on out. They didn’t take any penalties, they made sure to get the puck deep in Sabre territory and they rode the steady hand of Neuvirth in goal for the win.
Ovechkin had a chance to seal it with Miller on the bench for a extra-attacker, but the ace goal-scorer misfired. It led to one last gasp for the Sabres that was silenced by more good work in the faceoff circle by Washington.
It’s another busy week ahead on Comcast SportsNet. The Caps head north to face Ottawa Tuesday and Toronto Thursday, before a Friday home date with Philadelphia.