Home or away. Close rival or out-of-division enemy. Right now it doesn't matter to the Buffalo Sabres.
The streaking Sabres undressed another opponent Monday night, earning a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in Verizon Center. The Sabres extended their season-best winning streak to five games to move above .500 for just the second time this season.
The win vaulted the Sabres (11-10-1) from a tie for 13th place into a tie for ninth in the Eastern Conference. They can try to climb into a playoff position Wednesday when they host Jay McKee, Lee Stempniak and the St. Louis Blues.
"We're vastly improved in a lot of areas, but we're going to have a lot of tests coming up," said Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who won his fourth straight decision. "It only gets harder during the year, and we can't just accept that this is good hockey we're playing. We have to keep going."
Monday's victory was fueled by center Jochen Hecht, who scored twice and assisted on the other goal. The three-point night was one shy of
his career high, last accomplished against Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 2006. He nearly matched it with a hat trick, but Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig robbed him on the doorstep with nine minutes to go.
"Finally, we got something done out there," Hecht said. "We didn't have a lot of chances, but the chances we had out there, we scored on.
The win also proved the Sabres can win outside the Northeast Division, though it definitely had a homey feel as the vocal majority of the 11,204 fans sported blue and gold. It was the first time in 10 games the Sabres faced an out-of-division opponent, and Miller was just as good against Washington as he had been against Montreal, Ottawa and Boston.
He had a save percentage of .932 in his last eight games against the Northeast, and he stopped 30 of 31 shots taken by the Caps.
"The guys have done a good job backchecking," Miller said. "That's been a big help for our defense."
The Sabres opened the scoring for the fifth straight game, a hot streak that follows their 14-game run of giving up the first goal. Hecht did the honors this time. The center circled the net with the puck, and no Capitals followed him. Hecht threw a pass to the front, and it hit defenseman John Erskine before caroming home with 11 minutes gone.
Caps superstar Alexander Ovechkin tied it just 49 seconds into the second period, showing the dazzling skills that make him one of the game's best. He streaked down the left side until he was engaged by Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell. Ovechkin slipped the puck through Campbell's legs, danced around him and took a shot on Miller.
The goaltender saved the first one, but Ovechkin deposited the rebound for his 17th goal of the year.
"Ovechkin just had that one dangerous opportunity and made it count," Miller said.
Hecht added two more points in three-minute span to give Buffalo a 3-1 lead. Daniel Paille picked Michael Nylander's pocket right in front of the Washington net and slid the puck to Hecht. Last month's captain flipped it over Kolzig with 11:53 to go.
Minutes later, Nylander dropped an errant pass at the Buffalo blue line. It started a two-on-one for Hecht and Jason Pominville, and Pominville merely had to tap home Hecht's pass with 9:13 to play in the second.
It snapped a 13-game scoring drought for Pominville.
"It was fun to get an odd-man rush," Pominville said. "It seems like it's been awhile. [Hecht] made a great play, and I just had to tap it in.
"It's been extremely frustrating. You try to keep it in. The team's winning games, and that's what it's all about, but when the team wasn't winning and you're not scoring and you know it's a way you can help the team, it's definitely frustrating. . . . I was finally happy to get rewarded."
Slap shots: Sabres extend season-best winning streak to five games. ... Hecht scores twice, adds an assist. ... Sparse crowd would be thinner if Sabres fans didn't flock to Verizon Center.
Fast fact: Washington interim coach Bruce Boudreau was in the classic hockey movie "Slap Shot" as a player for the Hyannisport Presidents.
Next Game: St. Louis Blues, 7 p.m. Wednesday in HSBC Arena.