The Washington Capitals were here 312 days ago, at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, playing the Sabres.
That was their final game before the coronavirus pandemic halted the regular season, and before the Capitals entered the postseason in a bubble, suffered a first-round exit and fired coach Todd Reirden. That was before coach Peter Laviolette was hired in September, and before a slew of changes to the roster were made — including goaltender Ilya Samsonov assuming the starting role.
Almost a year later, Washington took the ice Thursday night to open the 2021 campaign in unusual circumstances — beginning a 56-game slate in which regular-season games are isolated to divisional foes.
But even with the changes, the Capitals‘ core is intact. And that group excelled in the season-opening 6-4 win against the Sabres, opening Laviolette’s tenure with a performance that displayed the fast-paced, aggressive offense the coach desires.
“With all the new things we’ve been implementing throughout our game, system-wise, how we want to play the game, I think we actually did a great job with a lot of them tonight,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “When we were playing bad, it was almost like we were resorting back to plays from the past, and maybe trying to do too much.”
Laviolette said Samsonov, who started 22 games during his rookie season last year, made a strong start in the crease. A few of the goals he gave up were tricky wraparounds or back-door tap-ins. Laviolette hadn’t made a decision yet about who will start between the pipes Saturday in the second of two consecutive meetings with Buffalo, but rotating between Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek seems likely.
Alex Ovechkin began his 16th season Thursday, but the 35-year-old forward hasn’t missed a beat. He opened the year with a pair of first-period assists. For Washington’s opener, Buffalo turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and Ovechkin kept his balance just long enough to fire a pass across the goalmouth for center Nicklas Backstrom to slot home.
And after Sabres winger Taylor Hall equalized on a power play — capitalizing on a defensive breakdown — the Capitals took the lead again. Ovechkin fired a one-timer toward a crowded net on another power play, and winger T.J. Oshie poked the puck home.
Washington finished the 2019-20 season with the 17th-best power play percentage (19.4), but that facet of the team looked strong Thursday, with quick passing and a flurry of shots on goal.
“If you’re not scoring, at least create momentum,” said Oshie, who led the team with three points. “It was a good night for the power play.”
Moments after Washington’s second power play ended without a score, Brenden Dillon fired a long-distance effort into the net, his first goal with the Capitals.
Laviolette’s system calls for his players to play with speed and requires defensemen to get in on the attacking action. Even after a shortened training camp limited the amount of time the Capitals had to learn that new system, they crashed the crease throughout the night.
And on a breakaway midway through the second period, Carlson sliced through the Sabres’ defense and picked his spot, slotting home a goal.
“Part of our offensive identity is to have D shooting and to get pucks to the net,” Oshie said. “Seeing guys go to the net, that’s something that I think we have had room for improvement in the past, and I think tonight was a good step forward in the right direction as far as guys getting hungry around the net and getting some dirty goals.”
With goals from Carlson and Dillon in the period, the Capitals withstood a late wrap-around score from Buffalo’s Tobias Rieder.
But Buffalo created — and then threw away — a prime chance to get back into the contest as the third period began. Jake McCabe sniped a top-corner goal 20 seconds into the period, but a costly giveaway from Eric Staal in the Sabres’ defensive zone allowed Jakub Vrana to reestablish the two-goal cushion, 5-3.
“I felt like it gave us a little energy for the rest of the game,” Vrana said.
Buffalo kept Thursday’s contest interesting, though, with Victor Olofsson scoring after his team emptied its net with two minutes remaining. Garnet Hathaway flicked a long-distance effort into an empty net to secure a win.
For Washington, Thursday’s performance could have been smoother. But in Laviolette’s first game with the Capitals, there were enough positive takeaways — especially on the scoreboard.
“It’s the start of a season and a start of a new direction. I think guys can really enjoy that,” Laviolette said. “You try to build off that, you try to take that momentum and build off of that.”