BUFFALO, N.Y. | The high-flying Washington Capitals have been scoring goals at a prodigious pace of late. A healthy dose of Ryan Miller - and a less than typical effort from the Caps - put an end to that Wednesday night.
Miller made 35 saves and stifled the league's top offense in a 3-0 victory for the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena. While members of the Caps lauded Miller for his play, they also questioned their own one game after moving into the top spot of the NHL standings.
"We have to look in the mirror - we didn't play a very good game. We weren't skating tonight," center Brendan Morrison said. "Overall it wasn't a very good effort. We put more pucks to the net in third period, but the first couple periods - I don't know why, but we were really hesitant. We were playing passive, and that's not our game."
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: "We weren't moving our legs, and we were just letting the play happen. Until you start forechecking and creating your own opportunities, nothing good is going to happen. We had a lot of passengers tonight."
A leading candidate for the Vezina trophy and to start for Team USA in the Winter Olympics, Miller led the NHL in goals-against average (1.90) and save percentage (.935) coming into the night and padded those numbers with a mix of brilliance and steady play.
"He played awesome," Caps captain Chris Clark said. "He's one of the best goalies in the league, and when he is on his 'A' game, it is tough to get anything by him. We definitely tried."
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for the Eastern Conference-leading Caps. Since Nov. 1, Washington is 9-0-2 against teams outside the top eight in their respective conference before Wednesday's games but only 2-4-1 against the other top seven clubs in the East after the loss to Buffalo.
After defeating Tampa Bay on Monday, Washington moved ahead of San Jose for the top spot in the NHL with 44 points. Morrison said the prevention of a letdown was addressed both at the morning skate and before the game, but a combination of that, six straight wins and six straight nights away from home may have had a cumulative effect on the Caps.
"It looked like we were happy with six [straight wins] and complacent because they're not used to smelling the air that they're at," Boudreau said. "It is quite different from being the hunter to being the hunted."
Buffalo's Steve Montador was credited with his second goal of the season to start the scoring. His shot from the right point hit Milan Jurcina in front of the net and knuckled over the left shoulder of netminder Jose Theodore 4:06 into the first period.
After a slow start to the middle period, the Sabres struck twice in the final six minutes to expand their lead. Diminutive forward Nathan Gerbe made it 2-0 with a power-play goal at 14:42 with his first NHL goal
Henrik Tallinder skated the puck from behind his net into the Caps' offensive end and was able to send the rebound of his first shot past Theodore for his second tally of the season.
Washington had 22 shots through the first two periods while Buffalo built the lead but few great chances and almost no second-shot opportunities.
The Caps were without two defensemen - Shaone Morrisonn and Brian Pothier - for an extended stretch in the second period. Morrisonn returned, but not before Mike Green went to the box for high-sticking, which led to Tyler Sloan shifting back to defense during the Buffalo power play that Gerbe scored on.
Pothier did not return, missing the final 28-plus minutes of the contest. There was no official word on his status after the game.
Much of the credit for keeping Alex Ovechkin in check goes to Buffalo rookie defenseman Tyler Myers, who was matched up against the two-time MVP for most of the night. The 19-year-old stands 6-foot-8, and his long reach helped him bother guys on Washington's top line.
Morrison was one Washington player who did have several prime scoring opportunities, but a combination of bouncing pucks and Miller's sensational effort kept him off the score sheet.
"Probably would have been a little different outcome if I could have put the puck in the back of the net," Morrison said.
Note - Semyon Varlamov (lower body) and Mathieu Perreault (illness) missed the game because of injury. Michal Neuvirth was recalled to back up Theodore, and Keith Aucoin was in the lineup for Perreault.