Although Saturday’s Capitals-Sabres tilt represented the final game that storied NHL referee Bill McCreary would officiate, his presence went largely unnoticed for much of the game.
Washington and Buffalo entered the third period of last night’s game tied 2-2, and in a game with playoff implications for each team, McCreary and his fellow officials had kept their whistles in their pockets through the first two periods.
But when the game’s first penalty was called 7:59 into the third period, the makeup of the game changed.
The two sides combined for three power play goals on four attempts in the third period, the final and most important coming when Washington’s Jason Arnott beat Buffalo goaltender Jhonas Enroth with a backhand in the final minute of regulation to send the game into overtime at 4-4.
At 3:19 of the extra frame, a fortunate shot off the stick of Alex Ovechkin found its way past Enroth to give the Capitals a 5-4 win and move the team into first place in the Eastern Conference.
While the game’s end result was positive, though, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau was anything but happy with his team’s effort.
“I’m concerned with the process of how we played,” Boudeau said. “Games like this happen. The best defensive teams in the league, every now and then, will have a game where they stop doing it right.”
For a team that had transformed itself this season into a formidable defensive unit, last night’s game was anything but smooth in the defensive end. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the game’s first five minutes with goals by Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin, the Capitals appeared to be in the driver’s seat.
But after Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff called a timeout, the momentum shifted. Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek tipped a Jason Pominville shot past Washington goaltender Michael Neuvirth less than two minutes after Semin’s goal, and a Drew Stafford shot at 9:28 of the first period rattled its way past Neuvirth to tie the game.
“We didn’t get off to the start we wanted, but after that [timeout], we worked hard, battled hard, got back in the game,” Ruff said. “Once we got by that segment of hockey, we were good again.”
Perhaps it was the defensive corps’ lack of depth – as Dennis Wideman and John Erskine missed the game with injury – finally catching up with the team. It may also have been as simple as succumbing to the will of a Buffalo team fighting for its playoff life.
Whatever the reason, though, the Capitals were unhappy with their effort despite the end result.
“It was just a weird game,” Knuble said. “I don’t know, it was just kind of one of those days. You have to give them credit, they didn’t shut it down. Their season is on the line, so they came right back and came back a lot harder on us.
“The probably could have pulled a lead out on us. It took us a while to wake up.”
Despite their inconsistencies, though, the Capitals were able to erase two third period Buffalo leads for their third win in four games.
The Sabres struck first in the third period when Washington got caught in an ill-advised line change and center Paul Gaustad was left alone with Neuvirth at the top of the crease. Gaustad converted to put Buffalo ahead, 3-2.
Knuble’s second of the day tied it 3-3 at 14:18 of the third period, but the feisty Sabres wouldn’t go away. After defenseman Scott Hannan was flagged for interference, Stafford got his second goal on the ensuing power play after Washington’s John Carlson kicked his shot past Neuvirth.
But as they had all day, the Capitals climbed back. They used their timeout after Gaustad was called for high-sticking with 1:25 to play, and pulled Neuvirth for a 6-on-4 advantage.
An Ovechkin shot handcuffed Enroth and ended up on Arnott’s stick, who took the puck to his backhand and calmly tucked it in for his 400th career goal.
So while Ovechkin’s overtime goal sent the Verizon Center fans into hysteria, the back-and-forth game was not the effort that the Capitals had hoped for as they tune-up for the playoffs. At the end of the day, though, Washington can enjoy the fact that a subpar effort still yielded two points and a spot atop the Eastern Conference.
“The teams that we’ve played are in their playoff mode,” Boudreau said. “It’s a great learning experience seeing how teams are ramping it up for the playoffs.”