The Buffalo Sabres have brought out the worst in the Washington Capitals this season.
However, the Caps didn’t let the demons of their previous two meetings against the Sabres haunt them Friday night at Verizon Center, as they used a strong start to propel themselves to a much-needed 3-1 win.
And for the second straight game, Washington’s top line and its three best players were at the forefront.
Alex Ovechkin scored a pair of goals, including an insurance tally to thwart Buffalo’s comeback bid in the third period. Nicklas Backstrom scored in the second period — the 100th goal of his career — and Alexander Semin added two assists to continue his recent stretch of productive play.
The win comes as a relief to the Caps, who had suffered two of their worst losses of the year at the hands of the Sabres. A 5-1 loss Nov. 26 resulted in the firing of Bruce Boudreau, while a 4-2 defeat the day after Christmas prevented the Caps from turning around their fortunes on the road.
However, those setbacks are now in the rearview mirror after some heroics from the first line and a gritty 25-save effort from Tomas Vokoun.
Ovechkin’s and Semin’s struggles have been the team’s primary concern throughout the season, but after two straight dominant performances, signs indicate both are back in a big way.
“It’s good to see them start producing like they should,” forward Troy Brouwer said of the reunited top line. “They’ve been scoring goals here and there, but we need them to be like they were tonight — creating chances, not a liability in our D-zone, playing the right way, getting pucks deep. They did a lot of really good things tonight.”
Most importantly, they scored early to get the Caps off to the quick start that evaded them in Monday’s 4-2 loss when Buffalo rattled off the first four goals.
This time around it was the Capitals cashing in on an early power play as Ovechkin’s centering pass from the half-boards went off Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and past Ryan Miller to make it 1-0 just 1:42 into the contest.
The goal sparked a furious effort by the Caps in the first period. They outshot Buffalo 11-2, controlling the puck for much of the frame, while Jason Chimera and Brouwer each dropped the gloves with Mike Weber and Ehrhoff, respectively.
“When your top line scores … the rest of the team plays hard and they feed off it,” said coach Dale Hunter.
The energy continued into the second period. Backstrom’s milestone was the result of a dazzling passing clinic put on by the first line and brought back memories of the 2009-10 campaign when it could do no wrong. Semin set the sequence in motion with a steal in the defensive zone, and the Capitals went tic-tac-toe through the offensive zone to give Backstrom an easy tap in for the 2-0 lead.
“We knew we had to come out hard and make sure that we did the right things out there,” Backstrom said. “I think we did a good job of that today.”
Two-goal advantage in hand, the Caps had to weather a furious onslaught from the Sabres. Jochen Hecht capped an outstanding second period for Buffalo, scoring on a rebound from Thomas Vanek’s point shot to cut the deficit to one.
“I think the Sabres — they pushed, and they came out harder and forechecked harder, dumped the puck more and created some opportunities because of it,” Hunter said.
Buffalo’s pressure continued in the third until Backstrom and Ovechkin converted a two-on-one opportunity with Ovechkin bombing a one-timer past Miller to ultimately seal Washington’s second straight win.
“We made pretty plays by our simple plays,” Ovechkin said. “It’s nice when you make pretty plays and when you score the goals.”
The victory comes on the heels of 4-1 win over the New York Rangers and signifies that the Capitals might finally be starting to gain a little momentum — something that’s avoided them since Hunter’s hiring.
Now, they head to Columbus for Saturday night’s tilt on a high note.
“A couple wins going on the road is always a big confidence-builder,” said Brouwer. “And for us, we’re going into tomorrow night back-to-back. There’s areas of our game we want to clean up, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that tomorrow and have just a solid road game a lot like the two we played here at home.”