“I said, train kept a-rolling all night long, Train kept a-rolling all night long…” – Aerosmith
Alexander Ovechkin failed in his attempt to get his third consecutive hat trick, but he did score his league leading 29th goal to tie this contest at three in period two and then he notched the game winning shootout tally in the fourth round to propel the Washington Capitals to a 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night. Pheonix Copley made 26 saves for the Caps and he was only dented once in four tries in the gimmick.
The Sabres had the schedule advantage in this contest, but it was the Defending Stanley Cup Champions coming off of Friday’s shootout win in Raleigh who dominated this affair at even strength. Buffalo essentially scored three power play goals, their first marker by Jack Eichel came right as Michal Kempny’s high sticking penalty expired and the other two, one by Eichel and the other by rookie standout Rasmus Dahlin, also came with the man advantage. Washington, meanwhile, had four power plays, and didn’t convert on any of them. Coach Todd Reirden needs to get the special teams back under control, especially the PK, which badly misses Brooks Orpik.
Carter Hutton (35 saves) was the biggest reason, along with a leaky Capitals penalty killing unit, that this affair wasn’t ended by the Champs in regulation. Washington totally out quality chanced the Sabres at even strength, but the big goalie was the difference. At the other end, Copley played well, although he probably wants the third goal back. Still, the biggest question mark coming into this season for Washington was backup goalie, yet the man born in North Pole, Alaska is now 7-1 in his last nine starts. Caps fans can thank Copley for a Merry Christmas in 2018, because he’s been stellar as Philipp Grubauer’s replacement, at a much lower price.
Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana notched their 7th and 10th goals of the season, respectively, as Washington received contributions on the scoresheet from each of their top three lines. Devante Smith-Pelly made a key steal from Hutton less than a minute after the Sabres took a 1-0 lead to feed Conno all alone in front for a layup. That was a critical goal given that the Capitals played on Friday night and Buffalo was sitting waiting to knock off the Cup winners in their first try of 2018-19. The Sabres had early momentum and DSP’s hustle and heads up play completely took that off of the table.
Vrana’s tally, which came on a rocket from the slot, was all set up by a great fore check by Tom Wilson. Willy’s pressure and speed forced the Sabres Matt Tennyson to turn the puck over up the left wing wall right to Evgeny Kuzentsov and Kuzy slid the disc cross ice to Jakub, who blasted it past Hutton to make it 2-1 less than 10 minutes into this affair.
The Sabres would notch two power play goals in the first 7:21 of period two to take a 3-2 lead, although Craig Laughlin thought both of the calls by the Quebec “not so dynamic” duo of Francois St. Laurent and Pierre Lambert weren’t penalties. He was right, but there were a couple of phantom calls on Buffalo, as well, especially the delay of game penalty on Marco Sandella in period three. That was pure rubbish, but enough on the incompetent zebras, you just have to play well enough to overcome them these days and Washington did, but Hutton held the fort for as long as he could for the visitors.
Sam Reinhart had a super chance to win this contest in the last minute after a Capitals turnover and then poor defensive work by Kuzy, but he hit the left pipe from the slot. In overtime, Kuznetsov had a late breakaway, only to be stoned by Hutton trying to go five hole.
But Evgeny would get revenge in the gimmick and he forced Casey Middlestadt to score on the third shot to keep this one going. Mighty Casey did tally, but then the Gr8 beat Hutton through the wickets on his shootout attempt and Copley stopped Jason Pominville to send Caps fans home happy and the many Buffalo supporters in attendance, out into the rainy night with a defeat, but also a standings point.
The Sabres are certainly a rising club and they play with pace, but the Capitals are still Kings of the Castle and improved to 20-9-3 (43 points). They lead the Metropolitan Division by six points over second place Columbus and the third place Penguins by seven points. It certainly looks like that trio should be your three playoff teams coming out of the Metro, barring major injuries to star players, while the Atlantic Division places five teams in the postseason with Tampa, Toronto, Buffalo, and Boston looking like locks for four of those slots. There are still 50 games to play, though, and the game changes on January 1st when things get more physical and buckled down defensively. The good news for Washington is they can play that style of hockey, too.
This triumph over the Sabres closes the book on a seven goal and one shootout tally winner for the Gr8 in the three games played this week. It’s pretty much a no-brainer that he’ll capture NHL Player of the Week when it is announced on Monday. The Caps will be off on Sunday, and they earned it. Next up are the Penguins at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. The Pens have recently overcome a rough patch and are starting to play better hockey, so this next one should be a dandy.
But for now, the Capitals can sit back and enjoy their five game winning streak and take a few days to catch their breath. I’m sure that the coaching staff will also work on their penalty killing because the Pens have perhaps the most deadly power play in the league.
In addition to the five game run, the Capitals have now won 12 of their last 14 games, so it’s time to cue up the Steven Tyler again.
“Train kept a-rolling all night long, Train kept a-rolling all night long.”
Notes: The Caps had a 38-29 shots on goal and a 77-54 shot attempts advantage. They certainly didn’t look like a team that was supposed to be tired and you have to like the professionalism of this squad. They are getting excellent coaching and more importantly, great leadership, starting with Ovechkin and then All Star Nicklas Backstrom (who made a whale of a pass to set the Gr8 up for his game tying goal in period two)…the Capitals won the faceoff battle, 31-27. Backstrom went 11-5 and Kuznetsov was 9-6…Wilson had eight hits as the Caps won the body battle, 32-16…John “Norris Trophy Leading Candidate” Carlson logged 29:11 and was +3. The guy is a total stud on the back end…Michal Kempny had a trio of penalties, but as mentioned earlier, Locker didn’t think the second infraction was worthy of a call…Tennyson was -3 for Buffalo, who are back in town to face the Caps again on Friday, December 21st…Andre Burakovsky and Dmitrij Jaskin were the forward scratches. Tyler Lewington was recalled earlier on Saturday from Hershey to serve as the seventh defensemen.