The applause was well-deserved, so the Sabres soaked it in at center ice. They waved to the cheering crowd following a 4-1 victory over Washington, then retreated to the dressing room.
The shouts of joy continued back there. It may have trumped the noise made in the seats of First Niagara Center.
Buffalo’s players haven’t had a lot to celebrate this season. A convincing win over the NHL’s top team was a good reason to party Saturday night.
“Anytime you get on the winning side of things, it’s a good feeling,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “We’ve just got to keep it going here.”
That’s the trick for the Sabres. They’ve won three of four games, but they’ve had a tendency to fall flat after successes. They went on slides of 0-4-1, 0-3 and 1-6-1 following similar stretches of three wins in four games. It can’t happen again if they want to prove they’re better than 27th place.
They’ve got confidence after checking all the boxes against the Capitals. The Sabres scored at even strength, short-handed and on the power play. They were physical. They got fantastic goaltending from Chad Johnson, who stopped 33 of 34 shots against a team that had scored 19 goals in four games.
“We took it to them, and it was a great win,” said center Tim Schaller, who recorded his first career game-winning goal by putting Buffalo up, 2-0, with a short-handed tally.
While it was definitely a team effort, the unquestioned star was Johnson. One night after Robin Lehner returned to Buffalo’s crease, Johnson showed he has no desire to be just a backup.
Johnson brought many in the crowd of 19,070 to their feet with a glove save on Alex Ovechkin midway through the second period. It looked like the Capitals would cut the Sabres’ lead to 3-1 with a power-play goal, but Johnson reached out to snare Ovechkin’s wide-open chance from the slot.
“You know when you give a guy like Ovechkin that time and space in the slot, it’s challenging,” Johnson said. “I just tried to square up to him, try and make a reaction save. He’s so quick with his release, I knew I had to be there and just try and make sure I was in position.”
It was a statement to the Capitals that it wasn’t going to be their night. It was also a message to front- office folks in every NHL city that Johnson has skills. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely get attention at the trade deadline.
He improved to 11-12-2 with a .919 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against average while tying a career high with his 27th appearance.
“I hope I don’t get lost in the shuffle,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a good season this year, and I think I’ve proven I can play stretches. You just have to build trust with an organization or coach or whatever it is to kind of generate more starts. That’s pretty much what it comes down to is get that opportunity more consistently, and that comes from games like this.
“For us, it comes down to getting wins. It doesn’t matter who it is. It can be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s winning games, he plays whether he’s a good goalie or not a good goalie. In this league it just comes down to results. I just do what I have to do.
“I believe I’m a really good goalie in this league and can be. I’m just thankful for the opportunity tonight and hopefully going to play some more here in my career.”
His teammates certainly noticed the effort.
“He made a couple huge saves for us, especially on the kill,” captain Brian Gionta said. “That’s the difference in the game. He was feeling it.”
The Sabres as a group were feeling good. They’ll head to Arizona for a game Monday, followed by a visit to Denver on Wednesday. They want to come back to Buffalo feeling equally fine.
“That’s a good team effort,” Bogosian said. “All four lines were buzzing. Our defense was involved, and Johnny played a great game. Anytime you get everyone involved like that and control the play that way, it’s a lot more fun.”