WASHINGTON – As the Washington Capitals celebrated on the Capital One Arena ice Friday night, Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger walked a few steps to his right to speak to assistant coach Steve Smith.
The two men pointed toward the Sabres' net, where winger Brendan Leipsic was left wide open to score the Capitals' fourth goal in a span of 4:27 minutes during the first period. Moments later, Smith pulled out an iPad and the two coaches had another brief discussion during a stoppage in play.
The cause was obvious upon further review and the two coaches concocted a solution to address the problem. The damage was done, though. While the Sabres' play improved during stretches of the second and third periods, their poor puck management and shoddy defensive coverage resulted in a 6-1 loss to the Capitals.
There was a heightened sense of urgency in the visitors' dressing room afterward. Though the Sabres were relieved to have a chance at redemption with a game Saturday night in Buffalo, all involved knew corrections are needed for them to beat teams such as the Capitals or their next opponent, the New York Islanders, who are amid an eight-game win streak.
"The thing you take from this is we’ve got a long way to go," winger Kyle Okposo said. "I just think our game’s been slipping a little bit. We’ve been playing some pretty good hockey most of the time. Maybe getting away with 10 minutes here or there and tonight obviously we didn’t. I think we just have to get back to the basics. Hopefully it’s a wake-up call and tomorrow night come ready to play."
The Sabres (9-3-3) had their second-best October in franchise history by playing a simple game with the puck. There weren't many mistakes in the defensive zone or the odd-man rushes that plagued them during their 10-game win streak last November.
Following the Capitals' morning skate Friday in Arlington, Va., their coach, Todd Reirden, lauded the Sabres for being "way more detailed, more organized" under Krueger. Washington (10-2-3), which had its best October in franchise history and leads the National Hockey League with 23 points, viewed Buffalo as a formidable opponent.
Despite having two practices between games, the Sabres strayed from what has made them effective. Rather than getting the puck behind Washington's net and forechecking, they forced passes across the slot. Forwards weren't getting back when defensemen joined the rush. There wasn't enough puck movement to draw the Capitals out of position, either.
The first notable mistake occurred when Jack Eichel's pass was intercepted by Tom Wilson, whose backhanded pass sprung Jakub Vrana for a breakaway that resulted in a 1-0 lead at 6:17 into regulation.
Forty-two seconds later, Chandler Stephenson pushed the lead to two on a 4 on 1 that began with Rasmus Dahlin pinching in the offensive zone. Dahlin almost managed to make a remarkable cross-ice pass to Jeff Skinner but it ended with a turnover and a Sabres forward didn't drop back in coverage.
"First two we gave them on pucks off our stick and down the ice they went," Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe said. "That 10-minute stretch in the first period obviously was the game. … The next two were defensive lapses and falling behind like this against a team on the road, that’s a hole that’s tough to come out of."
The Sabres also lacked attention to detail. Washington's third goal occurred when Vrana was left alone in front of the net because neither McCabe nor Rasmus Ristolainen were able to sort out the Capitals' line rush. The defensemen didn't receive help from their three forwards, either.
Leipsic's goal exposed the issues Dahlin is having in the defensive zone this season. The latter dropped down on one knee to try to create a turnover but Travis Boyd circled around the back of the Sabres net and Leipsic was left wide open on the backdoor to push the Capitals' lead to 4-0 at 10:44 into regulation.
Though Dahlin was out of position, there wasn't a Sabres forward there to help and Henri Jokiharju couldn't break up Boyd's pass.
"We’re disappointed with what happened in the first period, of course," Krueger said. "We got away from the simple game and the decisions we needed to make with the puck. We gave them really everything they got in the first period and we had some excellent opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on. It could have been definitely a different game."
The Sabres failed to score on their two power-play opportunities, including one in the first period. Conor Sheary hit the post during a 2-on-1 following Stephenson's goal, a centering pass by Eichel nearly ricocheted into the net, Sheary was stopped from the high slot following a turnover in the Capitals' zone and Skinner hit the crossbar when he deflected Colin Miller's shot with one minute remaining.
Buffalo cleaned up its defensive mistakes in the second period. It was even the better team for a stretch of play and Jokiharju's first career NHL goal at 10:40 cut the deficit to three. However, Tom Wilson made it 5-1 by tipping Michal Kempny's shot from the point and the Capitals' sixth goal occurred on another blown defensive coverage.
The Sabres are tied with the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division and have a six-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Additionally, Buffalo entered Friday having allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.
However, the Sabres are showing they are far from a finished product and must improve in several areas if they are going to beat one of the NHL's best.
"That’s a good hockey team over there and you can’t make mistakes like that," Okposo said.