"One game like that does not a season make." David Steckel, on the team's encouraging defensive effort in the third period.
THE RESULT: Playing what Matt Bradley called "playoff-style hockey" in the third period, the Washington Capitals held on to a precious one-goal lead and defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-2, before an announced sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
All the tickets might have been sold, but there were just enough empty seats -- and Buffalo fans -- to give the building an less-than-raucous aura for the mid-week affair.
The Capitals won their seventh straight game at home and improved to an NHL best 14-4-1 on the season.
As has been the case so often in this recent stretch of winning hockey, the Capitals jumped out to an early lead, controlling the play against a game, but undermanned, Sabres squad. Washington got a five-on-three power play goal and two tallies from the energy line, and looked comfortably strong for most of the first half of the game.
Then, at 12:07 of the second, cracks in the armor showed.
Derek Roy (wouldn't he look good in Red come trade deadline) flipped a shot past Michal Neuvirth with Mike Green in the box and just 48 seconds later, Jordan Leopold snapped an even-strength wrist shot past the screened goalie, cutting the lead to 3-2 and sending shivers down every Caps spine.
Neuvirth then faced a barrage of shots and, frankly, was lucky the score was not worse. He looked unsure on a couple of stops, and at least twice Buffalo shooters missed wide open nets.
But the Caps regrouped, killing an Alex Ovechkin delay-of-game penalty without a shot on goal, and seemed to gain momentum from the big kill.
In the third, the Capitals really buckled down and clogged the defensive zone. It was probably the best concentrated 20-minute defensive effort the team has put forth all season long. Buffalo got 10 shots on goal in the frame, but Neuvirth was up to the task.
Coach Bruce Boudreau spoke about his young netminder's strength in the final frame. "I think, for him, it's his experience having to go through two championship rounds in the playoffs [for AHL Hershey]. He knows when to really buckle down and he's protected the lead for us really good this year."
"He's growing up right before your eyes."
Boudreau said his team never panicked and he didn't give some big motivational speech between the second and third periods.
"I told them to stay the course because they were doing a really good job."
On a night Boudreau picked to play around with his forward combinations, the Capitals best line this evening was the one composed of grinders: Jason Chimera, David Steckel and Matt Bradley. Both Bradley and Steckel scored, with Chimera providing the primary assist to both. The plays were similar as well, with Chimera feeding a cutting teammate in the slot from behind the Buffalo net.
Bradley actually led the team in shots with five, ahead of Alexes Ovechkin and Semin by one each.
"When we try to be fancy and do things we shouldn't, that's when we get in trouble," Bradley said. "We're just playing a simple game. That's what we did tonight."
Steckel spoke of the chemistry on the newly-formed line. "Chimmer got in there and made some great plays and Brads and I just kind of mucked it up and we were in the right spots. If you do the right stuff and are working hard, it's easy to play together."
Boudreau offered praise for the trio. "They were really good I thought tonight. It's the first quarter of the season and you're trying to find things that are really gonna click that you'll leave them there. So we're doing a little bit of experimenting with the lines."
Steckel -- who was awarded tonight's hard hat -- echoed his coaches words on the Caps' effort, and perhaps made the best observation of the season: "With the exception of the two minutes in the second period, we played really well. We talked about it before the game and we came out and executed it. We need to build off it. One game like that does not a season make."
Indeed. But it's a good place to start.
THE GOOD: Not enough can be said about how well the 25-39-10 line played. They were far and away the best line on the ice for either team, and really controlled the puck in the offensive zone, cycling and looking for opportune scoring chances.
Michal Neuvirth was strong again, except for those few moments in the second period. He turned away 31 shots - including all 10 in the third period – to improve to 12-3-0 on the season.
THE BAD: Eric Fehr was invisible. He had the least amount of ice time (14 shifts for 10:55) and was minus-one, managing just two shots on goal. No hits. No takeaways.
THE UGLY: Not really all that ugly, but I was not a big fan of the reconfigured lines tonight. Marcus Johansson is just not ready to center Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. He looked tenative with the puck on several occasions, once opting to pass backward from inside the faceoff circle with an open lane to the net.
THE STATS: Backstrom (6) from Semin (11) and Laich (8) PP at 12:31 of 1st. Bradley (2) from Chimera (4) and Alzner (2) at 17:04 of 1st. Steckel (3) from Chimera (5) and Bradley (4) at 2:45 of 2nd. Semin (14) unassisted EN at 19:56 of 3rd.
NEXT GAME: At Atlanta Thrashers Friday at 7:30 pm.
CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS
3. Michal Neuvirth. Despite a shaky two minutes in the second, he was a stone wall in the third when the Caps needed him to be.
2. Jason Chimera. Both passes were things of beauty.
1. Matt Bradley. Goal and assist. Led the team in shots and was very strong on the forecheck all night.
CAPS NOTES: Alexander Semin scored an empty netter with four seconds left in regulation and added an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s first period power-play goal to extended his point streak to nine games (nine goals, eight assists) and surpassing Alex Ovechkin for the longest streak by a Capital this season (eight games). Washington improved to 11-1-1 when Semin registers at least a point and 10-0-0 when he scores a goal.
Backstrom scored his sixth goal of the year on a two-man advantage with 7:29 remaining in the first period. Backstrom, who is riding a four-game point streak (two goals, five assists), has collected 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 19 games this season.
Washington upped their record to 10-0-0 when scoring a power play goal. For the season, the Caps rank seventh in the NHL at 21.9 percent.