This was a different spot for the Washington Capitals. For the first time this season, they led after two periods Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.
No need for players to implore each other to “stick with it” and results will come. The result was there. The Caps just had to not let it slip away.
That they managed to keep the lead and finish off the Sabres 3-2 showed more than their comeback Friday night just to force overtime in a loss at New Jersey. It showed they could play a full 60-minute game and get rewarded for hard work.
“I think we deserved it,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “I think Jersey, the one point was what we deserved, and today I think [we] fully [deserved] two points. The way we played, we played smart, we chipped pucks, we didn’t play too much in our zone. We just played smart hockey today, and it paid dividends.”
The Caps became the final team in the NHL to pick up a victory, giving Adam Oates his first as a head coach. He was subdued in the aftermath, given that it took until game No. 5 to get it.
“I’m just glad, finally,” he said. “I was kind of hoping it’d be sooner, but I’m glad.”
It was only fitting that Alex Ovechkin, the man so many around hockey thought Oates would be perfect for, supplied the game-winner. When Ovechkin blasted his third-period shot past Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller on the power play for his first goal of the season, it felt like much pressure was taken off the captain’s shoulders.
A four-game goal drought to start the year was the longest of Ovechkin’s career. He had said it was “tough,” then went out and did something about it as part of the Caps’ strongest performance of the season.
The superstar, back on left wing, was aggressive on the forecheck for most of the afternoon and created a handful of scoring chances.
“When he moves his feet, he’s the best player in the world,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “That’s what he can do. You could tell through two periods that even though he didn’t have anything, he was playing good.
“You could tell he was on the forecheck, he was getting to guys, he was in the cycle. That’s what we need from him. When he does that, people follow. That’s the name of the game.”
But Ovechkin’s game has to be filling the net. If he hadn’t scored on the power play, the Caps were one bad bounce away from a confidence-crushing Sabres goal. Instead, they kept the lead Sunday for 36 minutes, 42 seconds. The previous four games combined, they led for 2:32.
So when Marcus Foligno scored midway through the third to cut the lead to one, it wasn’t cause for alarm as much as it was a call for more urgency.
“Guys kind of maybe relaxed a little too much on the bench because it was 3-1,” Chimera said. “We kind of buckled down after that again.”
The rest of the way, the Caps cut down on Buffalo’s scoring chances and relied on Michal Neuvirth (22 saves) to continue his brilliant play of late.
Ovechkin had a chance to ice it with an empty net with about 30 seconds left but hit the post. Oates said that Ovechkin made this one a “little closer than anticipated.”
But Ovechkin had done enough during the rest of the game to make the empty-net miss more of a laughable afterthought than anything else. The captain recalled the time fellow former No. 1 pick Patrik Stefan missed an empty net for Dallas in 2007 and Edmonton tied the score seconds later.
There was no need for despair this time, though. The clock ticked down to zeroes and the Caps finally had a victory.
Right wing Joel Ward, who scored his team-best third goal of the season and added an assist on John Erskine’s first goal since May 4, 2011, said he was tired of hearing that the Caps were the last team without a win. But Chimera liked the jump at Saturday’s practice, and it was clear the mood around the team had changed even since the overtime loss at the Devils.
“Hopefully, the New Jersey game gave us confidence that when you do it right, we look like a real team,” Oates said.
And when Ovechkin looks like a real superstar, the Caps showed Sunday afternoon that they can follow his lead.
“When Ovi’s leading us like that, it’s tough not to follow,” Chimera said. “When he turns his wheels like that, and he’s the captain of our team. We can’t help but follow him. When he plays like that, it just goes right through the team.”