No team has been better than the Washington Capitals. No goaltender – heck, maybe no player – has been better than Braden Holtby.
The Sabres made them look like minor-leaguers. Most shocking of all, they did it in Buffalo.
The Sabres rolled to a 4-1 victory Saturday night in First Niagara Center, ending a six-game winless streak at home. The Sabres scored twice in each of the first two periods to treat the sellout crowd to a rare beatdown of a Washington squad that entered with a record of 33-7-3, including 14-1-1 in the last 16.
Holtby is playing his way toward a Vezina Trophy, but the Sabres sent him to the bench after 27:14. Buffalo beat the goaltender three times on 11 shots and dealt Holtby his first regulation loss since Nov. 10. He was on a 20-0-2 run, putting up a .939 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average during the streak, but the Sabres left him one game short of Washington’s franchise record. Jose Theodore went 20-0-3 in 2009-10.
The Sabres improved to 3-1 in their last four games, bumping their record to 18-23-4 overall and 9-14-2 at home.
Amerks alert: Maybe the Sabres should call up more forwards from Rochester. Two players recently summoned, Phil Varone and Tim Schaller, scored in the first period to give Buffalo a 2-0 lead at intermission. The Sabres had just 21 first-period goals in their opening 44 games.
Sudden impact: Varone, recalled Saturday morning to replace injured Zemgus Girgensons, made the most of an early line switch. The winger started on the fourth line with Schaller and Matt Moulson but, by the midpoint of the first period, he had slid into Girgensons’ role alongside Jack Eichel and Jamie McGinn.
The line created offensive pressure, with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen taking a slap shot from the point. Varone streaked through the left side of the zone to score on the rebound with 9:30 left.
McGinn, who is in his debut season with Buffalo, thought it was Varone’s first NHL goal and picked up the puck for a souvenir. He dropped it upon being informed there were other goals for Varone, who scored four times during the previous two seasons.
Schaller short-handed: With Eichel in the penalty box for tripping, Schaller went to work for the Sabres’ second short-handed goal of the season. He swiped the puck from defenseman Dmitry Orlov at the blue line, then skated three-quarters of the ice on a breakaway. He picked the top corner on Holtby with four minutes left in the opening period.
So long, Holtby: Evander Kane sent Holtby to the bench with 7:14 gone in the second period. The left winger sent a low shot through the tangled duo of Sam Reinhart and Nate Schmidt, and Holtby got only a piece of the puck.
Power play strikes: The Sabres got to relief goalie Philipp Grubauer on the power play with 4:23 left in the second, extending their lead to 4-0. A pass to the slot failed to connect for the Sabres, with the puck sliding to the boards. Cody Franson quickly corralled it and fired a shot into the top corner to end a drought of 10 games without a goal.
Salute to Johnson: The goaltender received a loud partial standing ovation when he flashed the leather on Alex Ovechkin to keep Washington off the scoreboard during the second period. Ovechkin twice kept the puck in the Buffalo zone during a power play, then got open in the slot. Normally, that means a goal for the 500-goal scorer, but Johnson reached out to snare the high shot with 8:38 left.
Johnson also made a glove save on Ovechkin’s center, Nicklas Backstrom, early in the second.
Breaking the shutout: Washington finally solved Johnson on their 25th shot of the night, and it was a beauty. Jason Chimera sent a pass to a wide-open Marcus Johansson in the slot, and his one-timer sailed into the top corner with 2:54 gone in the third period.
Bogosian milestone: Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian assisted on the first and fourth goals, giving him 100 helpers in his career.
Whites at home: The Sabres went to the past by petitioning the NHL to allow them to wear white at home.
Saturday’s game was the first of six, with Buffalo also scheduled to wear the traditional white Friday against Detroit, Feb. 4 against Boston, Feb. 12 against Montreal and March 8 against the New York Rangers.
Migay dies: Longtime scout Rudy Migay, who was elected to the Sabres Hall of Fame in 2004, died Saturday at age 87. The Sabres held a moment of silence in his honor prior to the game.
“My condolences to his family on the passing of Rudy Migay,” Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said on Twitter. “He was a great head scout for the Buffalo Sabres during the 1980s and 1990s. Rudy Migay was instrumental in the Buffalo Sabres drafting” Phil Housley, Tom Barrasso, Daren Puppa, Dave Andreychuk, Adam Creighton, John Tucker, Pierre Turgeon, Alexander Mogilny and many more.
On this date: Saturday was the 46th anniversary of the Sabres naming George “Punch” Imlach as their inaugural coach and general manager.
Up next: The Sabres have won two straight games on the road, and they’ll try to extend that to four this week. Buffalo will fly to Arizona on Sunday and visit the Coyotes on Monday night. Then it’s off to Denver, where Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn will get to face the Colorado Avalanche for the first time since the summer’s blockbuster trade that sent them to the Sabres.