WASHINGTON, D.C. – The puck left Rasmus Asplund’s stick on a one-timer and went wide of the net. Moments later, Tage Thompson carried the puck toward Washington Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek and directed another shot that glided toward the corner.
A tying goal seemed near for the Buffalo Sabres, an unlikely twist after an ugly first period Monday night in Capital One Arena.
Another milestone by a future Hall of Famer sent the Sabres off course again and extended their skid. Alex Ovechkin scored his 741st career goal, tying Brett Hull for fourth all-time, on a tipped shot over Dustin Tokarski’s shoulder and the Capitals held off another Sabres push for a 5-3 win.
The Sabres (5-5-2) are winless in five straight games and dropped to 1-4-1 on the road. They’ve allowed 22 goals since their troubles began on Halloween in Los Angeles.
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But this wasn’t the sort of drubbing we’ve seen them endure in the past at the hands of the Capitals (6-2-4), who won seven of the previous 10 meetings. Over the final two periods, Buffalo had more shots (22-18) and 5-on-5 high-danger scoring chances (6-5). Four of Washington’s five goals were scored off deflections or tipped shots.
“A lot of good things I think we did, a lot of things to improve on,” said Sabres center Cody Eakin. “But for the most part, we competed pretty darn hard and gave them a lot to handle. There were times we were pretty dominant in their zone, as they were in the first against us. So, a lot of good things to look back on, some adjustments to make and places to be better.”
The Sabres managed to silence most of the 18,573 fans in attendance by roaring back with impressive stretches of play that twice cut the deficit to one. First, Eakin slashed the Capitals’ lead to 2-1 by beating Vanecek with a shot over the glove after Ovechkin turned the puck over in the defensive zone at 3:43 into the second period.
Then, with the Sabres trailing 3-1 in the third, Anders Bjork crashed the net to jam a loose puck across the line for his second goal of the season. While the Capitals were without key cogs T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Anthony Mantha, it was a notable development for Buffalo after it scored the fourth-fewest third-period goals last season and often fell apart at the first sign of trouble. Even when the score was 5-3 after a Colin Miller goal, Jeff Skinner again could have scored on his drive to the net late in regulation.
“I think we have to remain confident because when we’re skating and attacking hard and using our speed, we stick with any team in this league and create lots of chances,” said Bjork. “We had a lot of opportunities there.”
This was another lesson for the young Sabres that small mistakes are magnified against top teams in the league, particularly on the road.
Tom Wilson scored his second of two goals when he was left uncovered deep in Buffalo’s end and received the puck with plenty of room to beat Tokarski on a backhand shot for another two-goal lead with 13:15 remaining in the third period. John Carlson added an insurance goal on the power play and Connor McMichael also scored for Washington.
There were some encouraging signs, despite the result. While it’s another loss on the road, the Sabres did not relent.
“I liked the fight all the way through to the end,” said coach Don Granato. “We have to compete. It was disappointing in our last road game. We didn’t have a real high competitive level and we needed that, first and foremost. I think there were opportunities in the game that were created and generated. It’s the way we need to play. We need to play aggressive.”
Here are more observations from the game Monday night:
The Sabres have looked lost on the power play at times with Victor Olofsson out of the lineup. Their zone entries were sloppy Monday and, when they were able to get set, their puck movement wasn't effective. They buckled under the Capitals’ pressure and had zero shots on goal in their first two opportunities. Buffalo finished 0-for-3 on the man advantage.
“I think we need to dedicate some practice time to it,” said Granato. “It certainly was a disappointment today, no question. The power play overall was. The entries weren’t good and it complicated everything. … We won more battles on 5-on-5 than we did on the power play.”
Changes on defense
Granato changed the defense pairs with Christian Wolanin making his Sabres debut and Will Butcher sitting because of a lingering injury. Wolanin, who was claimed off waivers on Oct. 16, struggled while skating alongside Robert Hagg.
But Rasmus Dahlin played well while skating on the top pair with Mark Pysyk. Dahlin led all Sabres in ice time (26:36) with a 64.86% shot-attempt differential percentage at 5 on 5, while Pysyk logged 22:15 of ice time with a team-best 72.97% differential.
Another ugly start
The Sabres were lucky to be trailing 1-0 at the first intermission. They didn’t have a shot on goal six minutes into the game and none of their 11 shot attempts in the first period were from below the faceoff dots. Washington, meanwhile, had 22 shots attempts through 20 minutes and had the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches.
The Capitals took a 1-0 lead at 2:13 into the game when Wilson got the second of two deflections on a shot from the point by Trevor van Riemsdyk. The deflections that led to goals is a correctable issue, Eakin said.
“The goalie’s got to be able to see those pucks and deflections aren’t easy to stop,” said Eakin. “So it starts with the body position and taking away those sticks and letting the goalie see the puck and the one that’s coming straight at him, not one that’s been deflected.”
Across the boards
Olofsson, center Casey Mittelstadt, defenseman Henri Jokiharju and goalie Craig Anderson missed the game because of injury. Olofsson and Mittelstadt are skating on their own, while Anderson is day to day and Jokiharju is out for an undetermined amount of time. Olofsson could return to the lineup Friday night. … Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, who was with the Sabres briefly late in the preseason, made his NHL debut for Washington.
The Sabres have a scheduled off day Tuesday ahead of their weekend back-to-back in KeyBank Center with Edmonton in Buffalo on Friday and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.