WASHINGTON – Alex Tuch was still wearing most of his equipment in an empty dressing room late Wednesday night at Capital One Arena.
Leaning against the wall at his stall, Tuch brooded over his split-second decision to swipe at the face of Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Irwin with an official standing nearby.
Tuch, the Buffalo Sabres’ top-line right wing, received a roughing penalty that ended his team’s power play as it clung to a one-goal lead with 2:24 left in regulation and gave a star-studded opponent a man advantage with two important standings points on the line.
Tom Wilson scored the tying goal on a quick shot from in front of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, then the Capitals completed the comeback in the shootout to send the Sabres to a 5-4 loss.
“Not the time,” lamented Tuch, who added that there were “no excuses” for his reaction to Irwin. “It’s unacceptable. I’m not a rookie. I’ve been in this league for a couple years now, and I know time management. Felt like I let the team down today.”
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Few words were spoken among the several Sabres who were lifting weights and riding stationary bikes outside the dressing room after a game in which the Capitals erased a two-goal deficit in the final 9:30 of regulation. All involved knew that it was a missed opportunity to gain ground in the playoff race.
Tuch tried to take ownership of the loss, but he wasn’t the only one who made a critical error for the Sabres (33-28-6), who could have started this trip with consecutive wins in Toronto and Washington.
Their penalty kill allowed two goals, Luukkonen didn’t stop Evegeny Kuznetsov or T.J. Oshie in the shootout and there was a myriad of mistakes as the Capitals (33-29-7) slowly chipped away at the deficit in the third period. As a result, Buffalo is again six points behind the New York Islanders for the second wild-card playoff spot.
“We had a real good start and we got away from our game,” said Sabres coach Don Granato. “We played way too relaxed after that. It was as if we felt it was going to be an easier night than what it was. We generated scoring chances, but we didn’t score. We thought that would just keep happening and we would be fine. So, we just dropped the level of focus and intensity, and it added up. It bit us.”
Granato saw trouble was brewing early in the third period. The Sabres lost the attention to detail that helped them race out to a 3-1 lead with goals from Ilya Lyubushkin, JJ Peterka and Tyson Jost in the first.
Kuznetsov scored 1:32 into the final frame to cut the Sabres’ lead to 3-2, and the Capitals’ push continued until Granato called a timeout with 15:54 remaining. He urged his players to remain calm and clean up their play in the defensive zone, where they began to scramble as Washington’s stars cycled the puck with ease.
Less than two minutes later, Zemgus Girgensons buried a shot from the slot past goalie Charlie Lindgren to put the Sabres ahead by two again. Buffalo had multiple opportunities to add to its lead, including a shot by Tage Thompson that almost leaked through Lindgren. The Capitals were relentless, though, and Alex Ovechkin cut the Sabres’ lead to 4-3 when he tipped a shot past Luukkonen with 9:30 left.
The Sabres went to the power play when Ovechkin was called for slashing with 3:42 on the clock in the third period, but it ended abruptly with Tuch’s penalty. They played 4-on-4 for 42 seconds, then the Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom passed in front to Wilson, who chipped the puck past Luukkonen to tie it with 1:08 remaining in regulation.
“Bad decision,” Tuch said. “That’s all it was.”
The Sabres had the puck in the offensive zone for most of overtime but couldn’t convert one of their three shots on goal, then Lindgren stopped Tuch and Thompson in the shootout to send Buffalo to a loss. The Sabres finished with 27 shots on goal, but they allowed 19 in the third period and Luukkonen finished with 35 saves.
“Obviously it stings right now,” said Sabres center Tyson Jost. “It’s a tough one. Definitely positives, just tough to kind of find it right now. It stings, for sure.”
This was another blow to the Sabres’ playoff chances. They entered the game with a 14.2 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to Evolving-Hockey, and, like the Capitals, had 71 standings points. Fifteen games remain, beginning Friday in Philadelphia, and though this was another deflating loss, Granato and others repeated the need to focus on what’s next.
“You’ve got to move on fast,” he said.
Here are other observations from the game:
Krebs is at his best when skating between Girgensons and Kyle Okposo, as we saw again in the third period with the young center’s pass to the slot. Krebs has zero goals and five assists over his last 13 games. He was limited to only 8:43 of ice time Monday in Toronto because of a few defensive miscues, but he was on the ice in the third period in Washington with the Sabres protecting a one-goal lead and he won an offensive-zone faceoff in overtime.
2. Working to create
Casey Mittelstadt wasn’t given an assist on the Sabres’ third goal, but his work in the neutral zone made it possible. He raced back to center ice to pressure Capitals winger Conor Sheary, who was retrieving the puck after an errant pass to his offensive blue line. Mittelstadt then used his stick to knock it away, sending Jost into a one-on-one situation. Jost made a hard stop to create a shot lane, then uncorked a wrister from the high slot to beat Lindgren for a 3-1 lead late in the first period.
Jack Quinn’s success starts on the defensive side, as illustrated again on the play that led to Peterka’s goal. Quinn forced a turnover off a faceoff loss in his own zone, knocked the puck down with his hand, then started the rush that he capped by finding a way to get the puck over to Peterka for the 2-0 lead.
Quinn has five goals and 11 points in his last 15 games, while Peterka has two goals and seven points in his last eight. Peterka, like Quinn, has transformed his game by focusing on ways to get the puck back.
4. Around the boards
• Sabres goalie prospect Devon Levi earned two additional honors Wednesday when he was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the top player in NCAA Division I men’s hockey, and top goaltender in the Hockey East conference.
Levi also a finalist for college hockey’s top goaltender honor, the Mike Richter Award, which he won following his sophomore campaign.
• The NHL confirmed that the scouting combine will be held in Buffalo at LECOM Harborcenter and KeyBank Center from June 4-10. The event is closed to the public. Prospects will interview with teams before participating in off-ice testing that will be used in preparation for the draft, which will be June 28 and 29 in Nashville.
The Sabres wrap the three-game road trip Friday in Philadelphia against the Flyers at 7 p.m.