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Sabres can get a true gauge of their progress in matchups with Caps

When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017, it was Sidney Crosby besting Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the second round all three years. The Capitals finally got over the Pittsburgh hex last season, winning their second-round series in six games on an Evgeny Kuznetsov overtime goal.

No coincidence it was the year Ovechkin & Co. finally broke through for the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 44 years.

That makes the Capitals a measuring stick for any team trying to climb into the NHL elite. The Buffalo Sabres will find out where they stand with a pair of road games in the next week against the defending Cup champs.

The first one is Saturday night in Capital One Arena. The teams meet again there next Friday.

Sabres captain Jack Eichel said he was a huge Ovechkin fan growing up and often went to see him play in Boston against the Bruins. So the Great Eight's Cup victory definitely resonated.

"I love how much fun he has with the game, love his passion for it," Eichel said after practice Friday in HarborCenter. "It's somebody I looked up to and it was good to see him win it. He took a lot of heat and criticism from a lot of people for a lot of things. Look what he's done in his career: He's arguably one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. I was really happy for their organization to get over that hump and do it and it was awesome to see him win it."

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Sabres winger Conor Sheary had a firsthand look at the rivalry the last three years while playing for the Penguins. Although last May's loss hit the Penguins hard, denying them a chance at an historic Cup three-peat, Sheary said he followed the Caps' last two series closely as Washington beat Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the East final before ending Vegas' Cinderella run in Game 5 of the Cup final.

"I definitely paid attention. I'm a fan of the game just as much as I am a player and what they were doing was a big deal," Sheary said. "They were obviously a deserving team, a group that's been around a long time at the top of the league. It was good for them to get their opportunity.

"It's obviously tough at the start because it's such a rivalry and you don't want your rival to win. But they were definitely deserving and played well at the right time."

The Capitals had one of the most social media-inspired celebrations in NHL history after they got home from their Game 5 clincher in Las Vegas, parading the Cup through Washington restaurants and watering holes and famously swimming in a public fountain in the Georgetown section of town as their adoring fans captured all the hijinks on their phones.

"You win the Cup after battling your whole life to do it, and you better celebrate it," said a chuckling Eichel. "So I'm not going to sit here and scold them for that. If you win a Cup, you better celebrate. You never know if it will happen again. And I don't imagine things are a whole lot different with other teams. They were just videotaped and on cameras more than past teams."

Perhaps the Caps had a Cup hangover — real or otherwise — when this season started. But they've heated up lately. After going just 8-7-3 over the first 18 games of the season, the Caps improved to 11-2 in their last 13 games with Friday's 6-5 shootout win at Carolina.

Ovechkin shows no signs of wearing down at age 33. He posted his second straight hat trick Friday to push his NHL-leading goal total to 28 and has 42 points in 31 games. Ovechkin also had three goals Tuesday against Detroit and has scored in nine of the last 10 games. He's also on a career-best 13-game point streak (16-6-22).

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Friday's hat trick was the 22nd of Ovechkin's career, snapping a tie with former Sabres sniper Rick Martin for 12th on the all-time list. Ovechkin also holds the NHL record for hat tricks by a Russian.  In 45 career games against the Sabres, Ovechkin has 46 points (30-16-46).

"Any time he's in the offensive zone he's dangerous with the puck," Sheary said. "You have to be aware of him when he's out there and not give him time and space. And keeping them off the power play is such a big them with them too. It's a strong first unit that can bury the puck."

The Sabres have won two straight after a five-game losing streak but beating the likes of Los Angeles and Arizona doesn't compare to this weekend's rugged back-to-back in Washington and Boston.

"It's going to be a very good test," said coach Phil Housley. "Washington is healthy right now. They've got their full lineup so it's going to be a great challenge for our guys to get ready to play in difficult circumstances in their building not getting the matchups we want. There's going to be a lot of responsibility, especially on our young guys, to face a heavy team."

"It's a huge game for us," Eichel said. "Look at their team and how consistent they are playing in their rink. They use their home ice to their advantage. They've got a lot of really good players and they're Stanley Cup champs for a reason. They start fast there and you see when they get rolling, they're a dangerous team."

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