In a few weeks most Capitals fans in attendance at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon will be rooting hard for Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.
But the expected starter for Team USA at next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia sent them home unhappy after handing Washington a 2-1 shootout loss. It was the second time in two weeks that Miller helped the NHL's worst team beat the Caps.
Buffalo also took a 2-1 shootout win on Dec. 29. Miller stopped a combined 77 of 79 shots in the two games. His best moment came late in regulation on Sunday when Washington forward Mikhail Grabovski corralled a pass from the far boards, had open space to hit the game-winning goal and instead found the blade of Miller's stick.
That brilliant, diving save kept the game tied at 1 and gave the Sabres a chance to win it. Miller also stopped all three shots he faced in the shootout from Eric Fehr, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"You see those highlights a lot, don't you?" Caps coach Adam Oates said of Miller's save on Grabovski. "He's a great goalie and has been. He made a great save there."
It was a disappointing loss for Washington, which had finally managed to put together back-to-back regulation wins. The Caps (22-16-7, 51 points) did retake second place in the Metropolitan Division, but leaving a point on the board with back-to-back games looming this week against San Jose and Pittsburgh – two of the NHL's five best teams – was hard to accept.
"Based on the standings, you want the points," Oates said. "There's no easy games. You want to get points every single time you can because it'll bite you later in the year. Yeah, we wanted two points, no question. [But] the way the game was going I'm glad we got one."
Oates thought his team looked tired after recent emotional wins over Toronto and Tampa Bay. Defenseman Karl Alzner and center Nicklas Backstrom both lamented Washington's overall play. The Caps weren't good enough in the neutral zone, struggled to solve Buffalo's passive 1-3-1 system and didn't challenge Miller enough.
There were also three penalties in the second period alone, a pair of ineffective power plays and Backstrom's late interference penalty that muted a roaring crowd already celebrating an apparent Alzner game-winning goal with 53 seconds to play. Instead, the goal was wiped out, Backstrom went to the penalty box and Buffalo, which took all five shots in overtime, won it on Cody Hodgson's shootout goal past Philipp Grubauer.
Prior to the game, Oates told reporters that Buffalo's passive style lulls opponents to sleep. But the Sabres mix that with an aggressive forecheck that can surprise teams not ready for it, according to Alzner. It's a different combination, but has been effective in recent weeks.
"You think you've got one thing, and then they change it up on you right away," Alzner said. "Obviously, we would have liked to play better. I don't think we played very good. That would have helped us. I don't know what it is about them. We can't seem to get it."
Buffalo didn't have many scoring chances, either, against Grubauer (30 saves). It's only goal was scored by forward Tyler Ennis on the power play with 1:49 left in the first period on a loose rebound in front. But it kept the score close and that was enough.
"We can't go line rush for line rush with these guys," Miller said.
The rebuilding Sabres, who have hired a new team president, general manager and coach this season, just aren't equipped to do so. But they are 6-3-2 since Dec. 17 under coach Ted Nolan, who will have the interim tag removed from his title later this month, according to new general manager Tim Murray, himself hired just Thursday.
Miller stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced, but there were few top-notch saves needed other than the late robbery of Grabovski. Washington just didn't generate enough traffic in front to do so. Miller saved 49 of 50 shots in that Dec. 29 victory. Against a goalie who is among the best in the world, and will get a chance to prove it next month in Sochi, the Caps' effort wasn't enough.
"We weren't on top of our game at all," Backstrom said. "I think we didn't have a good game. We maybe didn't deserve it, either."
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