Alex Ovechkin wasn’t there to help end his team’s string of poor third-period performances Wednesday night, but his countryman had his back.
Semyon Varlamov made 25 saves, and the Washington Capitals snapped a three-game losing streak with a 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres despite playing most of the final period without Ovechkin after his ejection.
“It is always difficult to play without Alex because he is our leader,” Varlamov said through an interpreter. “But we have a lot of other great players, and it was a good team win.”
Ovechkin had the lone goal of the first 40 minutes, though that was overshadowed by what transpired early in the third. He was assessed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for boarding Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta 3:38 into the third period.
In accordance with the league rulebook, Ovechkin was hit with the major penalty at the official’s discretion, and an injury to the head or face on a major infraction is grounds for an automatic ejection. Kaleta left the ice holding his nose, and Ovechkin tossed his stick in frustration as he headed for the dressing room.
“I just go to take a hit, and he turned and he just fell to the boards,” Ovechkin said. “If [a fine or suspension] happens, then this happens. I don’t think there is going to be something. He just fell into the boards. It was not my fault. I don’t think it was five- or 10-[minute penalty] - I think max it was going to be two minutes.”
Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “We just watched it a half-dozen times, and he hits him in the shoulder, not the side. It might have warranted a two-minute penalty, but I don’t think it warranted anything more than that.”
This is the second game misconduct in Ovechkin’s career, and both have come against the Sabres. He was ejected from a game Dec. 2, 2006, during his second NHL season for boarding then-Buffalo forward Danny Briere.
Ovechkin was ejected from a qualifying-round game in the 2007 world championships and suspended for the next game of the tournament for a checking-from-behind infraction. He also was fined earlier this season after slew-footing Atlanta’s Rich Peverley with 30 seconds left Oct. 22 at Philips Arena.
“I think it was just a moment in the game,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you have a bad hit, and nothing happens. Sometimes you have a good hit, but the guy just falls into the boards and have blood. … I can do nothing about it. I’m just going to play my game. I’m not going to change. It is me.”
Varlamov has been spectacular of late, and he was in top form again on this night. He registered his first shutout of the season and raised his record to 9-1-2 and his save percentage to .922. He’s staking his claim not only to the team’s No. 1 spot on the depth chart but also a spot among the top contenders for the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL’s top rookie.
“Nothing has really changed,” Varlamov said. “I’m working on my mistakes, trying to minimize my mistakes and get rid of them. I’ve also gotten over being nervous like I was at the beginning of the season.”
Added Boudreau: “It was like he said, ‘I am not letting this happen to me again in the third period.’ ”
Washington has had trouble holding leads and not taking penalties in the third period, so it appeared the Caps were in trouble when Buffalo was awarded a five-minute power play while being down 1-0 early in the third. Not only did the Caps erase the man advantage (and another two minutes after a delay-of-game penalty on Mike Green), but they also kept control of the contest and finished off the Sabres.
“We played great defensive hockey,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “When you are in good defensive position, the puck comes to you. … We were all over them, and we were in their zone most of the time with the exception of that power play.”