Morning After: Capitals 5, Sabres 3

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Welcome back to the Morning After, your home for Washington Capitals game analysis in this shortened season.

GAME 28: CAPS 5, SABRES 3 (12-15-1, 25 points, virtual tie for third in Southeast and 12th in East, 6 points back of playoff spot, 7 points back of first in division)

It’s a good night for the Caps and goaltender Braden Holtby when the first five questions after a game is about shooting at the empty net in the waning seconds. Holtby had tried it “a few times” before Sunday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.

“It’s kind of something that you want to make sure we have the game in the bag first, so it’s something that I’ve always thought of – trying to score a goal – but it’s not my first priority,” Holtby said.

Holtby had never scored before.

“I hit the post in Hershey once,” he said. “That was as close as I could get.”

This one got to the neutral zone but no further. Maybe Holtby could use some more practice.

“I don’t practice that,” he said. “I practice our breakout passes and whatnot, and every once in a while, you just try to shoot it down when you’re bored and you see if you can hit the net. But that’s definitely not something that I practice.”

No, but seriously, Braden, it’d be pretty cool. Ron Hextall did it. Martin Brodeur did it. Heck, even Chris Osgood and Jose Theodore did it.

“Yeah. You see a lot of the goalies when I was growing up. It was the thing to do,” Holtby said. “They’re scoring goals, and you know, it’d be something that I would like to do some day, but like I said before, I don’t ever want to put the team in jeopardy by trying it. Hopefully someday it happens.”

Someday wasn’t Sunday night. But Holtby won’t put his team at risk to make it happen. Got to have a two-goal lead or be on the penalty kill.

“Unless it’s a PK, where it’s not going to hurt the team if you ice the puck,” he said. “But yeah, two goals and at least under 30 seconds or something, if the opportunity presents itself.”

As for Holtby’s game in net, he called it “up and down.”

“The first goal I’d like to have back. It just kind of caught me off-guard,” the 23-year-old said. “I’d like to look at that one and see what I’d have done different. The third one, it was one of those soft plays that you have to choose which way to put that rebound, and that was basically the one place I didn’t want to put it. They capitalized on it, so that’s something I’d like to have back as well.”

Holtby’s biggest moment in the victory came on a brilliant glove save of a Drew Stafford shot with 5:08 left, just after the Caps killed off a rouging penalty on Steve Oleksy.

“It’s your job,” Holtby said, “if you’re going to win games, to come up with those saves.”

***

Alex Ovechkin scored the Caps’ fastest goal of the season, beating Sabres goalie Ryan Miller just 19 seconds in, off a faceoff won by Nicklas Backstrom after Marcus Johansson tapped it to him.

“First of all we have to win the faceoff and the guy who stay with the guy in different team, make a block or get pass back,” Ovechkin said.” Backie win the faceoff JoJo make a nice move there and sometimes you just have to be lucky. I was not bad and it goes in.”

What a difference playing with a lead makes.

“I think it’s a different game when you start with the lead,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “I think the last three or four games the first 10 minutes it’s 2-0 for the other team and it’s hard to stick with your system and play from behind.”

Forget about scoring first. This was the first time in four games that the Caps didn’t fall behind 2-0.

“I think to score that first goal gives you a chance to play with the lead, play smarter after that,” Ribeiro said. “You don’t have to cheat offensively; you can play your game plan and keep following it.”

***

Building a 4-1 lead, the Caps let things get to 4-3 and were in a precarious spot when Sabres agitator extraordinaire Steve Ott tricked Oleksy into taking a penalty.

Coach Adam Oates didn’t appreciate Ott breaking the fighters’ code by asking to go and not dropping the gloves, so his players were determined not to let the Sabres tie it with Oleksy in the box.

“Steve had been working extremely hard for us,” Holtby said. “He’s playing a lot of minutes right now, and he’s trying to stick up for the team there, and it’s an unfortunate penalty, so that’s one we want to make sure we kill off – not only for our team but for him, because we can take those penalties all day. Those are the ones you don’t mind killing off, and I’m glad we did.”

First Holtby robbed Stafford with his glove, then Mathieu Perreault scored just 17 seconds after Oleksy came out of the box. Important insurance goal.

“Huge because we were leaking a little oil,” Oates said. “We were doing some good things, but you know they’re going to push and they got a little bit of the momentum. And it was a big goal for us.”

***

Ott made a major impact on Sunday night’s game, and that wasn’t good news for the Caps. His hit on Tom Poti in the second period knocked the veteran defenseman out of the game.

Poti aggravated a back injury, Oates said.

It was the third time in six games the Caps had to finish with six defensemen.

“Well, you go down to five there’s nothing you can do,” Oates said. “Stay healthy? I don’t think anybody has that answer.”

The Caps are already without Mike Green (groin), John Erskine (left hand/wrist/arm) and Tomas Kundratek (right knee). Jack Hillen just returned from an almost-two-month absence.

Poti managed to play just 7:38. Forcing John Carlson (30:15), Hillen (23:03), Oleksy (21:09), Karl Alzner (18:56) and Jeff Schultz (14:13) into that kind of workload is a problem.

“Those minutes are going to catch up to us,” Oates said.

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