More than a half-hour after the Capitals wrapped up a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory over the Sabres, Nicklas Backstrom wasn’t quite aware of what it meant.
Two points against Buffalo at Verizon Center on Saturday night put the Caps in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since Dec. 3.
“Are we? Oh, OK,” Backstrom said with a laugh. “That’s good. It’s always good. You wanna be as high up as you can in the standings and work from there. You wanna have the home advantage as long as you can in the playoffs.”
This one wasn’t perfect by far – the Caps blew a two-goal lead in the first period and lapsed defensively throughout. Three of the Sabres’ four goals went in off Washington players, including the fourth off defenseman John Carlson who was hurrying back after joining the rush on the penalty kill.
Because of those sorts of things, Bruce Boudreau wasn’t celebrating being atop the East.
“I’m more concerned with the process of how we played and everything,” the Caps coach said, “and I thought it was way too close to looking like last year.”
Players admitted afterward there was plenty to learn about this game, which was a good example of playoff hockey with weird bounces, tight checking and a shift in officiating from no calls to a flurry. The teams combined to score four goals in the final 7½ minutes of regulation – and then Alex Ovechkin added the winner in overtime.
“It’s always nice when you score the overtime goal,” said Ovechkin, who deked around two defenders before banking it in off Andrej Sekera’s skate. “I had a pretty good chance today to score goal, but I missed the net and the goalie played well, but it’s nice to score.”
It was the first since his return from an undisclosed injury, and it came a few minutes after Jason Arnott tied it with his 400th career goal to send the crowd into a frenzy. Arnott’s marker was the second on the power play Saturday night for the Caps and came with Michal Neuvirth (34 saves) pulled.
Scoring six-on-four in the final minute is becoming a trend for the Caps – for better or worse.
“It shows a definite drive,” Boudreau said. “I don’t know if that’s a great sign or a sign that you’re behind all the time.”
For a team worried about the “process” going into the final week of the regular season, this win provided the perfect balance of climbing the standings while also revealing flaws that can be fixed before the real playoff hockey begins. It was a “learning experience” according to Boudreau – but also came with the benefit of passing the Flyers.
“They were fighting again for a playoff spot, and they came out pretty hard. I think it was just a good test for us going into the playoffs,” winger Marco Sturm said. “We still, I think, have a lot of improvement to work on, but it’s definitely a game like that is one you wanna have.”
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