- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Going into last night’s game Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon felt one team would be better prepared than the other to compete coming off a two-day break. But he never dreamed of being down by six goals after 11 minutes.

The first-place Buffalo Sabres got a large measure of revenge for a loss at Verizon Center three weeks ago by scoring early and often and then playing well the rest of the way for a 6-3 victory that really wasn’t that close.

The Sabres’ six-goal first period was aided by both some pucks that took crazy bounces, by some terribly inexperienced play by Caps defensemen and by forwards who didn’t do enough to help their teammates along the blue line.

And Washington’s goaltending was hardly faultless. Starter Brent Johnson was jerked after allowing four goals on six shots, and Olie Kolzig stopped just one of the first three he faced before the Caps settled down and restored some normalcy to their game.

Neither goalie had much support as the Sabres forced the play from the opening faceoff. By the time the Caps got their second shot on goal, Buffalo had three times that many goals.

“The Sabres put a lot of pressure on our defense, and we had to support them in other ways,” said Hanlon, not bothering to add that the defense got no help. “We just ended up spending too much time in our zone in the first period, and it was downhill from there.”

Buffalo was getting even for the Caps’ 7-4 victory Dec. 2, when the exact opposite happened. That time the Caps jumped out to a big early lead and held off repeated Sabres charges.

The previous meeting also featured “the hit,” when Alex Ovechkin of the Caps hit Buffalo star Daniel Briere from behind, driving the center head-first into the boards. Briere was shaken but never missed a shift. Ovechkin apologized and was fined $1,000.

Ovechkin was serenaded with boos and phrases describing certain of his private parts when he first reached the ice last night and every time he touched the puck thereafter. He got revenge himself in the second period, scoring a classic Ovechkin goal, then crouching slightly, cupping his left hand to his ear and waiting for the crowd’s response.

“When I score goal, I try to do something,” Ovechkin said later. He said he had asked the spectators, “Why you don’t boo?” — apparently unaware that that’s all the sellout throng of 18,690 was doing.

The Briere-Ovechkin nonconfrontation was a sideshow. What mattered to the Caps was having their four-game road winning streak come crashing to an end and losing two points in the standings.

“In the end, the best team won,” Hanlon said. “They played well and won by three. They could have won by more easily. If we stay in the defensive zone a lot like we did tonight, something bad can happen. Something bad did happen.”

Said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff: “It was important for us to play well, to come out playing well. I thought if it wasn’t for [Kolzig] in the second period, we could have run away with it. He made three or four really good saves.”

Besides Ovechkin, the Caps got goals from Kris Beech, his fifth, and Chris Clark, his 14th and second short-handed.

The Caps gave up eight first-period goals to Buffalo during their second year of their existence en route to a 14-2 road loss on Dec. 21, 1975.

Notes — Left wing Matt Bradley (hand surgery) was back on skates yesterday for the first time since Dec. 8 but still is listed as week-to-week. …

Ovechkin gained some ground on Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby in All-Star Game balloting but remains a distant second. …

The Caps’ man-lost-to-injury total jumped above 70 games when five more players sat out. Besides Bradley, right wing Richard Zednik (abdomen), defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (undisclosed) and defensemen John Erskine and Bryan Muir (both broken foot) were sidelined.

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