There was no champagne flowing in the Washington Capitals‘ locker room Friday night, no players with wide smiles on their faces, adorning special hats and T-shirts.
“That’s not our goal — before the season started, when we said we’re going to win we had one goal in mind,” coach Bruce Boudreau said, referring to the Stanley Cup. “We’ve got to get smarter to be able to play better.”
Added Sergei Fedorov, who had a pair of goals: “Last year was last year, and they have to be different from one another. This year was different with the way we played the whole season. I guess our goal is to get to the playoffs in the best shape possible and play as well as we can. That’s why it was more of a businesslike atmosphere in here tonight.”
Jason Pominville scored 1:51 into overtime to keep the Sabres’ fleeting playoff hopes alive, but just by reaching the extra period the Caps clinched their second straight division crown in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center that included a sizable Sabres contingent.
It is the franchise’s fifth division title. Coupled with New Jersey’s overtime triumph against Tampa Bay on Friday, the defeat means Washington’s lead for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference is two points with four games remaining.
“Obviously, we wanted to get the division title, but we want second place [in the East],” forward Matt Bradley said. “It is going to go right down to the wire. Every game is a big, important game for us.”
The Caps scored three times on the power play and passed Detroit for the top spot in that category (Washington is now at 25.6 percent), but the Sabres struck four times at even strength — including Pominville’s winner after Tim Connolly intercepted an ill-advised pass by Fedorov to spring the Buffalo captain on a minibreakaway.
Maxim Afinogenov leveled the score at 4-4 midway through the final period. After a scrambled situation in which multiple shot attempts did not make it to goaltender Simeon Varlamov but the Caps couldn’t clear the puck, it came to Connolly near the inside of the left circle. He pushed it across the slot to Afinogenov, who snapped it into the net before Varlamov could get back into position at 10:21.
The Caps grabbed a 3-2 lead with power-play goals 13 seconds apart in the second period after the Sabres were assessed four infractions in a span of 2:30. Alexander Semin flipped home the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin slap shot for a five-on-three tally at 3:37. It was Semin’s 30th of the season.
Fedorov added another before the Washington fans had settled into their seats. Tomas Fleischmann made a diving stop with his stick to keep the puck in the offensive zone, and Fedorov ripped a shot from the high slot past Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. It was Fleischmann’s first point since Feb. 28 at Boston.
Derek Roy knotted the score at 3-3 when he redirected a Connolly slap pass on the power play at 18:17 of the middle period, but Fedorov struck again 23 seconds later. Ovechkin’s attempt from inside the left circle was thwarted, but Fedorov’s slap shot from the left wall beat Miller with the help of a screen from Viktor Kozlov.
It was Fedorov’s second two-goal game of the year; he also potted a pair Oct. 25 at Dallas.
Ovechkin put Washington on the board first with his league-leading 55th goal of the season. Brooks Laich and Kozlov worked a give-and-go with the Caps on the power play, then Laich fed Ovechkin with a beautiful cross-crease pass for a one-timer at 5:36 of the opening period.
It was Ovechkin’s 19th extra-man marker of the season, which tied him with Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek and Calgary’s Michael Cammalleri. It is also only the fifth time someone has reached 55 goals in the past 12 seasons — Ovechkin and Pavel Bure have done it twice, and Jonathan Cheechoo once.
“I thought we played a pretty good game,” Bradley said. “It was a good tuneup for the playoffs. We’re going to have to limit those little mistakes that cost us goals against.”
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