Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Just what exactly happened to the Buffalo Sabres at the Verizon Center last night is unclear. They played two solid periods of tight hockey and entered the third period with a 2-1 lead over the Washington Capitals. It was nearly perfect road hockey. They absorbed what the Caps threw at them, including some strong hits directed at individuals, most notably Alexander Ovechkin going after Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen, and did not allow Washinton an overabundance of scoring opportunities. Granted, they did have a couple of prime opportunities, but goalie Chad Johnson was up to the task.
The only blemish through 40 minutes was a huge gaffe by Johnson as he was victimized by an intense forecheck and was offered no support by his teammates. Stuck behind the net with the puck on his stick and an attack coming from his left, he sent the puck to the other side, right on to the stick of Washington's Justin Williams who proceeded to take a stride and deposit it into the empty net. A gaffe like that could have been devastating as it tied the score at 1-1 with less than six minutes left in the second period.
Buffalo would bail Johnson out, however as Zemgus Girgensons put the Sabres back on top with 1:13 left in the period.
Twenty minutes to go and unfortunately for Buffalo they were playing the hottest team in the league with a bevy of snipers and skilled players, lead by Ovechkin.
There were no ominous signs as to what was coming, although a delay to the start of the period and numerous faceoffs in the Buffalo zone during the first minute made for a painstakingly slow start to the period. Perhaps it lulled the Sabres to sleep. But a wicked shot off the faceoff from Ovechkin hit like a lightning bolt and energized the building. The puck squeaked through Johnson and dribbled towards the goal line before Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian swiped it away to save a goal.
With the crowd buzzing and Buffalo in a bit of disarray, the Sabres committed a cardinal hockey sin for the second game in a row vs. Washington. They gave Ovechkin too much space as he took a feed from Evgeni Kusnetsov and deposited in the net. Bogosian, who had just saved a goal, was victimized on that play and the score was tied 2-2.
From that point forward it was pretty much over as Washington would score four unanswered goals on 15 shots. It was the first time in a long time, maybe the first time this season, that Buffalo had absolutely no answer in the third period and just let this one get out of hand. Heading into the frame, ice-level Sabres analyst Rob Ray mentioned that the Sabres were tied for second in the league in third period goals, but they would get none last night and they would fall to the Caps 5-2.
Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma told the post-game media that the Ovechkin goal was a huge momentum changer but also pointed out that the Sabres had an opportunity to regain the lead on the powerplay. The first powerplay unit faltered, again, and 1:10 into the PP, Evander Kane went off for tripping. Ovechkin would go off for high-sticking Buffalo defenseman Jake McCabe and the Sabres had a 4-on-3 for :23 seconds but didn't register a shot on goal.
It was fun to watch save for the fact that the Sabres couldn't score. They finished the game 0/4 and are now have zero goals in their last 21 PP opportunities.
Buffalo has no time to lament as they're back at it tonight with a 6:00pm start time vs. the NY Islanders at First Niagara Center.
Simple fact, last night the Sabres fell to a superior Capitals team. Washington boasts more talent, way more experience and they're playing like a well-oiled machine. Props to head coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff. Before they arrived, no one knew what to do with this Ovechkin-lead group, but Trotz got their respect and after a year-and-a-half, the Capitals find themselves atop the NHL standings today.
Bylsma gave Girgensons an opportunity last night to play on a skill line centered by rookie phenom, Jack Eichel. He also put "Gus" on the second unit powerplay. It was a deserved reward for going about his business through most of the season on a checking line.
And Girgensons responded.
On the first two powerplays the Sabres had the second unit generated six shots, Girgensons with two of them. It doesn't sound like much, but with the way the powerplay has looked during their drought, it's a monumental leap forward.
Buffalo's first goal by linemate Brian Gionta was a direct result of some good passing and Girgensons gaining the zone and getting the puck to Eichel who proceeded to send a beauty of a pass to Gionta.
And on the goal in the second period, Girgesons just doesn't get enough credit as he was seen to be the beneficiary of a right-place/right-time lucky bounce. Yet, he won the face off cleanly and in stead of hanging out waiting for something to happen he went to the net. When Eichel's shot was deflected in the air, Girgensons did a pirouetting box-out of Kusnetsov that landed him in a shooting position. At the exact time the puck hit the ice, Girgensons smacked it home.
Take a look at it again. That was a helluva play.
Eichel played exceptionally well last night. We all know his tools, but one thing that's holding him back is his generosity with the puck.
One of the notes I made last night was that I cant wait until he becomes more selfish. He went in on a 2-on-1 with Nic Deslauriers last night and had a wide open shooting lane but opted to send a pass to Deslauriers. I get it, but with a wrister like he has and with Deslauriers probably thinking rebound opportunity, the best play would have been to send one on net.
After a pretty long drought heading into the Christmas break, Eichel has come back with six points in three games. He's fourth amongst rookies in points with 22, fourth in assists with 11 and is tied for second with 11 goals.
His 22 points ranks him third on the Sabres.
Tyler Ennis is having a rough season. His production is at career lows and he missed a good chunk of the season due to injury.
Last night he was looking good before Ovechkin leveled him with a check in the back. Nothing dirty on the play, but it put Ennis out for the game. An array of penalties could have been called on Ovechkin, but as we saw in the last game when he boarded Josh Gorges, it will take something more blatant and obvious to put him in the box.
Such is the NHL.
That said, with Deslauriers playing a fairly passive game for his style, maybe a player like Patrick Kaleta would've taken matters into his own hands and pestered the heck out of Ovie.
Just a thought.