The Washington Capitals did not play a bad game last night, not like some of the horrible examples of hockey the club put on display earlier this season.
However, the Capitals did make enough mistakes defensively and miss just enough chances offensively to allow the Buffalo Sabres -- a team struggling even more than Washington -- to escape from MCI Center with a 3-1 victory.
Miroslav Satan had a goal and two assists for the Sabres.
Peter Bondra scored Washington's only goal (on his only shot) and hit two pipes but the Sabres held a commanding 40-22 advantage in shots. Actually, what hurt the Caps was taking the second period off -- they had two shots and one was a gift -- as the Sabres, winners of one of their last nine games, were minus their leading scorer.
Former coach Bruce Cassidy preached to the Caps they had to get pucks on net. Their inability to do so was one of many reasons why he lost his job.
The Caps advance toward the offensive zone and repeatedly turn the puck over, or take it into the zone and pass into double or triple coverage. Often their shots from the perimeter are easily blocked before they come anywhere near the cage.
"I felt we had some decent jump early on," Caps coach Glen Hanlon said, "but I was more concerned with the middle part of our game. Sometimes in the middle part that's where mental strength comes in. When your mind starts to wander [midway through the second] and that's where we started to do some things that we definitely have to address and work on."
It was a game that appeared to be there for the taking. Bondra's goal came eight minutes into the first when he split the defense and roared down the middle of the ice. He unloaded from just outside the left hashmark, his 15th of the season. It seemed all the Caps needed was another score from somebody, anyone, to keep the Sabres reeling.
But Buffalo got the next goal on a series of errors.
Olie Kolzig came out to play a loose puck behind and to the left of his cage. In fact, three players converged on the puck at the same time -- Kolzig, defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski and Satan. Kolzig and his defenseman appeared to back off so as not to interfere. Satan also backed out of the picture and waited for something to happen. Kolzig finally attempted to clear and his pass went right to Satan who curled around the right side and deposited the puck in the cage.
Once again, a moment of adversity seem to take the punch out of the Caps, as it has so often this disappointing season. The Satan score came at 16:47 and by the time the third period started more than 23 minutes later, the Caps had mustered only three shots.
"For us one of our strengths has to be shooting the puck," said Hanlon, 3-3-2 since taking over as coach. "I think our attempts at the net tonight weren't bad, I think in comparison to some other nights our shot selection was decent. It was either a combination of Buffalo getting in the shooting lanes or us not executing, getting the shot to the net."
Satan set up the go-ahead goal with 15:41 left to play in the third when he set up on the left side of the cage and sent a pass across the crease to Daniel Briere, who beat Kolzig. It was Briere's 11th of the season and tied him with Sabres' right wing J.P. Dumont for the team lead.
Of course, Dumont, the Sabres' leading scorer with 11 goals and 25 points, was out with an injury but that didn't prevent Buffalo from unloading 39 shots on goal, the 40th into an empty net with 40 seconds remaining.
Buffalo was most successful at staying out of the penalty box (one non-coincidental minor in the third period), which kept the NHL's second ranked power play unit off the ice.
That may have been a valuable lesson to the Caps who have to realize they can't depend on that unit night after night.