WASHINGTON – The Buffalo Sabres won just three times in their first 18 games this season. Suddenly, they’ve won three in a row for the first time in nearly nine months.
A 43-save night in goal from Jhonas Enroth and Torrey Mitchell’s tie-breaking goal with 7:42 left got the job done Saturday in Verizon Center as the Sabres surprised the Washington Capitals, 2-1.
Mitchell, apparently felled earlier in the third period when struck on the foot by a shoot-in from teammate Rasmus Ristolainen, came back and potted a Brian Gionta rebound to give Buffalo the victory.
Gionta worked the puck out of the corner, got stopped by Braden Holtby but slid it under the Washington goalie to Mitchell. He stuffed it into the empty net from the left of the crease for his third goal of the season.
“We’re doing the right things, playing the right way and it’s going our way now,” said Gionta. “’Mitchey’ poked that puck loose, I tried getting it by the goalie on the far side and it didn’t happen, but I was able to keep poking away and it went right to him.”
Buffalo had not won three straight since the last week of February. And, in fact, the Sabres have now won three in a row in regulation for the first time since March 23-27, 2012.
At 6-13-2, Buffalo remains tied for last in the NHL’s overall standing. But 5-6-2 in the last 13 games is clear progress after a 1-7 start.
“The first 10 games as any young team, you’re building,” said coach Ted Nolan. “You’re going to have your moments. Certainly, we did. The next 10 games we’ve gotten a lot better.”
The Sabres got outshot in this one, 44-26, but Enroth was as sharp as he’s been all season. Caps star Alex Ovechkin had eight shots on goal and 17 shot attempts but was kept scoreless, including one laser he cranked off the goalpost in the second period and another that Enroth stopped in the final minute with the Caps’ net empty.
Enroth was only beaten on Matt Niskanen’s power-play goal at 5:54 of the third period that got the Caps even at 1-1. He made 19 saves on 20 shots in relief of injured Michal Neuvirth to beat San Jose on Tuesday and snap his personal seven-game losing streak. Out on top of his crease and tracking the puck well through screens, Enroth seemed to carry that performance into this one.
“That’s how it works sometimes for goalies,” Enroth said. “You just need something to bounce your way and then you can keep building on that.”
Said Gionta: “Even when we had breakdowns tonight, ‘Jony’ stood on his head and kept us in there.”
The Sabres tried as much as possible to have the defense pair of Tyler Myers and Tyson Strachan on the ice against Ovechkin’s line. Strachan, who played 18 games for the Caps last year, led Buffalo players in ice time at 23:07. That’s five times in six games over 20 minutes for Strachan, who has taken advantage of Josh Gorges’ knee injury to grab big minutes.
“We want to be playing and we want to play a lot,” Strachan said. “We want to be called on in those situations. It’s a great feeling. It’s a tough business and you feel bad for Gorges right now because the team can really use him. ... But while I’m called upon, I’m going to relish playing the minutes and try to battle it out.”
Matt Moulson’s goal at 10:15 of the second period gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead after 40 minutes. Tyler Ennis fired wide of Holtby and the puck skittered off the backboards right to Moulson on the right side of the net. He quickly back-handed the puck toward the goal, knowing Holtby was out of position on the other side of the crease and it went in off the shaft of the stick of defenseman John Carlson.
Mitchell was struck on the left foot earlier in the third period by a Rasmus Ristolainen dump-in and hobbled off. He was able to make it back into the game but was undergoing treatments after and was unavailable to comment.
“Right now there’s a lot of smiles on his face,” Nolan said. “When the adrenalin of the game wears off, he could be a little bit sore, but I don’t think it’s serious.”
The same may not be said for Cody McCormick, who missed the final two periods after enduring a scary collision that saw him take the skate of Caps forward Erie Fehr to the side of the head. McCormick has had concussion issues in the past and Nolan said the team is worried about that cropping up again.
The game was the 10th of the season for Buffalo defenseman Nikita Zadorov, officially kicking in the first year of his entry-level contract. He played 19:10 and was plus-1.