The Sabres will get a pair of looks at Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals this month. The first one comes Monday night in KeyBank Center and it's going to be interesting to see which version of the Caps they see.
The Capitals played one of their best games in recent weeks Saturday in Pittsburgh, posting a 5-2 win that allowed them to keep pace with Philadephia in the Metropolitan Division. Both teams are 41-20-7.
(Memo to the NHL schedule maker: Could you have stuck it to the Sabres any worse with back-to-back-to-back against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington?)
Still, the Capitals are just 11-12-2 this season inside the Metro, which means they are a stunning 30-8-5 vs. the other three divisions. Overall, they are just 15-14-2 since two days before Christmas. That 26-6-5 start seems a long time ago.
The big problem is being unable to keep the puck out of their net. Among Metro teams, only the Rangers and Devils have allowed more goals than the Capitals' 212. Veteran Braden Holtby is having the worst season of his career in goal, with a goals-against average of 3.14 and save percentage of .897. You don't want to be going into free agency with numbers basically equivalent to Carter Hutton's (3.18/.898).
Of course, the big thing in the Caps' favor is Ovechkin keeps putting the puck in the net.
The Great Eight's run to 700 career goals is over and now he's on to moving up the all-time charts even more. He's at 47 goals for the season, a hat trick away from his ninth 50-goal campaign and 705 for his career. That's four shy of passing former Capitals great Mike Gartner (708) for No. 7 on the all-time list. Next are Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731) and Brett Hull (741), all of whom he could pass by the end of next season.
All that would be left would be Jaromir Jagr (766) and Gordie Howe (801) before the ultimate chase: Wayne Gretzky's all-time record of 894.
Ovechkin had two goals Thursday night in New York and it was the 145th multi-goal game of his career, two shy of Howe for fourth place on the all-time list. The leaders ahead of him are Gretzky (189), Hull (158) and Mario Lemieux (154).
"I’m confident with the team. I know the response is there,” Ovechkin said last week. “We just have to realize we have to play smart, we have to play simple. As soon as we start thinking through it too much and do some stupid decisions on the ice, it costs us the game.”
Ovechkin turns 35 in September and will need to average around 50 goals a season until he's roughly 39 to pass Gretzky. His durability has been amazing, not missing more than four games in any season in the last 10 years. He's going to have to keep that up.
"It's been amazing to coach against this player and now to be able to coach him and see him every day," Capitals coach Todd Reirden told CBS Sports last week. "He is beyond a generational talent, that's for sure. Multi-generational in what he's been able to do, how he's been able to do it, the size that he is and the fact he's been basically able to do it with very few injuries. It was just an awesome thing to be a part of.
"I was here for 600 as well. To see the 700th one has taken on a life of its own with the number of absolutely amazing players he's passed recently. ... It just made 700 more special. Certainly, he's a guy who works at his craft and he's earned it. It's a special thing to watch every day."
For his career, Ovechkin has 32 goals and 49 points in 49 games against the Sabres. Buffalo is just 3-8-3 in its last 14 games against the Capitals but has won two of the last three against the Caps in KeyBank Center.
If you're thinking down the road for the playoffs, here's one stat Ovechkin will have to turn if the Capitals meet the Flyers. The Caps went 1-3 against Philadelphia this year but Ovechkin was held pointless, had just 10 shots on goal and a minus-4 rating in four games.
The first goal the Penguins scored here Thursday night might have been the worst example of goalie interference on a play that was allowed to stand that I have ever seen. While Curtis Lazar certainly got Nick Bjugstad's feet as the Penguins forward was en route to the goal, it was Bjugstad who led with his arms and lunged into Buffalo goalie Jonas Johansson to create the interference.
It was absurd the play was called a goal on the ice, which made it tougher to overturn on review. And equally absurd, the review focused on the ticky-tack trip and not the pummeling of the goalie. Classic case of good team getting a call and a bad team not. If, say, Zemgus Girgensons had done the same thing to Matt Murray in a game in Pittsburgh, which way do you think that call is going?
Two other points: Not a fan of the Sabres doing nothing but standing around and watching after their goalie got drilled. Sure, the puck is in the net, but where's the statement? And Ralph Krueger is a fine, respectful fellow, but this is a case where he should have lost his mind at the officials and helped incite the crowd, too. Once in a while, you've just got to stand up for your team and your franchise.
Notwithstanding refusing to play Jeff Skinner with Jack Eichel until Saturday night, that particular incident might be the most disappointed I've been with Krueger all season.
Here it is. This was an actual goal in an actual NHL game and was upheld on replay. https://t.co/zNvnsuOAi8
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 6, 2020
* The standings get more embarrassing by the day. The Sabres have now fallen behind New Jersey – which went into full sell mode at the deadline and already fired its coach (John Hynes) and GM (Ray Shero) this season. Buffalo is 14th in the East (ahead of only Ottawa and Detroit), 26th overall and staring at a good chance of yet another top-5 pick in the draft. No chance that was on the agenda of ownership and this front office this year.
The tank brigade that still exists here in the wake of the spring of 2015 may be loving that fact again, but it's a complete guarantee that the top levels of the Sabres organization are not.
* With Saturday's 3-1 win in Wells Fargo Center over Buffalo, Philadelphia improved to an NHL-best 10-0-1 this season when tied after two periods. The Sabres fell to 5-8-5, with the 13 losses the most in the league. A big difference between a good team and a mediocre one is you have to come through at winning time.
* So the Penguins traded Dominik Kahun, who looks like a keeper, for both Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues? Advantage Jason Botterill for once. Sidney Crosby must have made it very clear he wanted Sheary back on his wing for Pens GM Jim Rutherford to make that kind of move. Rodrigues, by the way, returned to the land of the healthy scratch on Saturday.
* Fighting is way down around the league but old friend Nic Deslauriers, now playing in Anaheim, is throwing down like a throwback player. Deslauriers took his 14th fighting major of the season Friday night, scrapping with Toronto's Kyle Clifford. No one else in the league has more than seven.
Around the boards
* A salary cap between $84 million and $88.2 million for next year? Good news for a lot of teams, including the Sabres. Of course, it remains to be seen if ownership will trust Botterill to be the one to spend all that money. Now the league and the Players' Association need to get cracking on a multi-year system so teams can better make their plans and not find out on draft weekend – a week before free agency – what the cap is going to be for the next season.
* The Sabres are in Montreal on Thursday night and again on March 24, and the Habs already have announced there won't be a coaching change for next season. GM Marc Bergevin says Claude Julien, who has two years left on a five-year deal, will be back.
"Claude Julien will be at training camp in the month of September,” Bergevin told French network RDS at last week's GM meetings. “I believe in the message he’s giving to our players. It’s certain that the season we’ve had has been a difficult one. We all have to take responsibility, Claude, myself, the players. Our goal is, essentially, to be better in September next season so we can be in the playoffs.”
* When Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl scored four goals last week vs. Nashville, it gave him multiple goals in five straight games against the Predators that have produced 12 goals and 14 points.
The latest outburst made the NHL's leading scorer just the third player in league history to record two-plus goals in five consecutive games against one team. It's previously been done by Pittsburgh's Lemieux against Quebec in 1987-88 and Punch Broadbent of the original Ottawa Senators against Montreal in 1922.