The Washington Capitals had been in this position before. Just Wednesday as a matter of fact when they had a three-goal lead on the Boston Bruins only to see that evaporate. The Capitals went on to win the game in overtime, but a brief players-only meeting addressed the poor finish after the game.
That kind of collapse wasn't going to happen to the Caps again. Certainly not on Friday.
With a 2-0 lead in the third period, Washington found itself consistently in the penalty box, eventually yielding a power play goal to the Buffalo Sabres.
The lead was down to 2-1 with about eight minutes to play. But the Caps learned their lesson, turned up the forecheck, drew their own power play and regained their two-goal lead when John Carlson scored his first goal of the season.
"They had just scored. Momentum. We were able to draw a penalty and that’s where you can take the game right back," Washington coach Barry Trotz said. "And you can just see once we scored that goal their bench sort of just deflated again. That’s owning the big moment for sure."
An empty-net goal with 1:12 left secured the fourth straight win for the Capitals, who left KeyBank Center with a 4-1 victory while correcting a tendency to backslide with the lead.
"I think tonight we kind of caught ourselves a little bit," said T.J. Oshie who opened the scoring with his ninth of the season at 6:43 of the second. "That tendency seemed to almost creep back into our game where get ahead and we stop forechecking. We talked about it on the bench. The players talked about it. The coaches yelled it.
"They scored a goal and the very next shift we were in there and forechecking. I think that drives a lot of our game. It brings a lot of energy and you feel like you’re getting some good work done out there. Glad we caught ourselves tonight and we had a good finish."
He was standing in front of a locker, with his back slightly turned toward the shower area. That was key. Because otherwise Jakub Vrana would have seen it coming.
But after answering two questions from the media about his first NHL goal, Vrana got a face full of shaving cream courtesy teammate Tom Wilson.
Vrana wiped his eyes, looked at the media and said, "all right, next question."
The forward from the Czech Republic was playing in his fifth NHL career game, called up from the Hershey Bears where he registered 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 18 AHL games.
"A few shots the last few games and it didn't go in," said Vrana, a first-round draft choice of the Capitals in 2014. "That one did and give credit to" Evgeny Kuznetsov "for a great play."
Kuznetsov came down the right side, blew past the Buffalo defense and fed Vrana in front of the net for a power play goal in the second period.
Was that how he dreamed his first NHL goal would look like?
"I don't know," Vrana said. "I never dreamed how I would score, you know. Just get some shots on the net and hopefully something's going to go in. Like I sad gotta give" Kuznetsov "credit for a great play."
"Jake went to the paint and found that puck and when he finds that puck in close he’s pretty good," Trotz said. "He’s more of a pure shooter than a play-maker for sure which is OK. Do what you do best. Alex Ovechkin "has made a good living doing that. Jake will do that."
With the win, the Capitals swept the season series against the the Sabres. They won, 3-1, on Nov. 25 in Washington and came back for a 3-2 overtime win on Dec. 5.
"They’re almost like little playoff series," Trotz said of the frequent meetings with the Sabres. "Every game, because we’re in the same conference, they’re four-point games. We’ve just got to collect points. I always tell the guys, just collect points. Collect points every week and at the end of the year let’s look up and see how many we can get."
It was the first time the Capitals swept the Sabres since 2012-13.
If there were an Ironman award for endurance in a hockey game, Rasmus Ristolainen would always be in the conversation.
Friday he set a new standard.
Ristolainen played 30 minutes and 11 seconds, the second time he's gone over 30 minutes in a game his career.
The most minutes he has played came Jan. 18, 2016 when he played 30:15 against Arizona.