Buffalo Sabres (38-29-10) Jason Pominville battled captain on captain for control of the puck in the neutral zone with the Washington Capitals (38-31-8) Alex Ovechkin late in the second period, Tuesday.
Pominville chipped the puck past Ovechkin, sped in two-on-one with Derek Roy on his left and fired a short-handed goal past goalie Michael Neuvirth to put the Sabres up 4-1 with a little over a period left to play.
The shot all but solidified the Sabres takeover of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference from Washington’s grasp.
Earlier in the second period Thomas Vanek scored his 25th goal of the season from Cody Hodgson and Corey Tropp to put the Sabres up 3-0 and chase rookie goaltender Braden Holtby from the net.
Capitals head coach Dale Hunter tried to spark his reeling club by replacing Holtby with Michael Neuvirth, but the final period belonged to Ryan Miller who made 19-saves and stopped 44-of-45 Capitals attempts in the 5-1 victory. “I think every line contributed and battled hard,” Pominville said post-game, “Our special teams were good as well, at the end of the day it makes a big difference and we end up winning a game.”
The game had a playoff-like intensity, but Washington couldn’t capitalize on the energy from the 18,506 who attended the Verizon Center, because the Sabres jumped out early and never looked back.
Cody McCormick opened the scoring just under 9-minutes into the game on a pass from Brad Boyes, who threw the puck to the front of the net after a Holtby miscue behind it.
Then late in the first period Drew Stafford scored his 18th of the season to completely deflate any lingering momentum Washington gained from a Patrick Kaleta interference penalty.
Just under two minutes later, Alexander Semin scored off an offensive zone faceoff, but the laser shot through a scrum would prove to be the only way the Caps could beat an electrifying Miller. “We’ve got a lot of good things going on,” said head coach, Lindy Ruff, “And Ryan is a big part of this.”
Drew Stafford capped the scoring in the third period with his 19th goal of the season to put an exclamation point on a victory that epitomizes the rejuvenation of a team that clawed from the basement to become one of the league’s hottest teams.
The win was a microcosm of the style of play the Sabres have embodied over the past month in which they are 11-2-2, riding the hot hand of Miller, scoring with a balanced attack from every line and employing a solid, but aggressive defensive mentality.
Possibly just as important as getting the win and 2-points in Washington is the reality that Christian Ehrhoff left the game after hitting knee-on-knee with Troy Brouwer and didn’t return. “Obviously he couldn’t finish the game, we’ll have our doctors evaluate him, but it looks like he’s going to miss a little bit of time,” Ruff said.
If Ehrhoff, who leads all Sabres defensemen in scoring with 32-points is out, Ruff could turn to Mike Weber or recall rookie Brayden McNabb from Rochester to fill the void.
Injuries are something the team has struggled all year to overcome, but losing ‘the Hoff’ could be a ball and chain around the ankle of the rolling offensive aspect of the Sabres defensive system.
Unlike early in the season, the offensive attack has recently featured crisper passes, a fiercer net drive and timely finishes.
At a point in the season where every game is seemingly do or die, the Sabres have begun to click and the timing on the ice couldn’t be more synced with the urgency off it.
The eye of the Sabres offensive storm is Tyler Ennis, who recorded two assists in the win over Washington and has 7-points over the last 5-games.
Ennis has been a play-making machine since sliding from the wing to center a line with Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno. The trio will have to continue to pace the attack Friday if they are going to compete with Pittsburgh, arguably the only team in the league hotter than the Sabres.
Since Sidney Crosby’s return from a season long struggle with concussion-like symptoms, the Penguins (100-points) are surging to the top of the East where they sit 3-points behind the East-leading New York Rangers with 6-games left to play.
While the Sabres attempt to retain hold of the East’s final playoff spot over their final 5-games and the Penguins resume the quest to chase down the Rangers, deeper implications could be in store should each team accomplish those goals.
With both teams firing on all cylinders it should be another playoff-like atmosphere at the First Niagara Center and the team that emerges victorious could position themselves with a slight mental edge for the beginning of a best-of-seven series in the first round of the playoffs.
It would only be the third time these two franchises have met in the playoffs with the Sabres falling in both of the previous meetings, once in the 1978-1979 Preliminary Round and again in the 2000-2001 Eastern Conference Semi-Final.
Despite the glaring advantage Pittsburgh has over Buffalo with the talent Crosby and Malkin bring, there is something special about the way the Sabres are peaking at the right time.
In life and sport, where the margin between victory and defeat is sometimes as fine as the sharpest blade, the slightest shift can determine a season hanging in the balance. Although the Sabres have thrived with their backs against the wall, it will take a herculean effort to continue this surge to a run every Sabres fan has dreamed of since 1971.