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Caps a no-show in season’s biggest game

BY ZAC BOYER

WASHINGTON—Two of Buffalo’s defensemen were on the bench, hurt, and a third was in the penalty box. As the puck slid toward Alex Ovechkin at the left point midway through the second period, it seemed as though it was only a matter of when, not if, the Washington Capi tals’ star winger would cut into the Sabres’ two-goal lead.

Ovechkin, though, never handled the puck. Instead, Buffalo’s Jason Pominville managed to corral it as it bounded over Ovechkin’s stick and took it the length of the ice, blowing it past goaltender Michal Neuvirth for the shorthanded goal.

So it went Tuesday at the Verizon Center for the Capi tals, who, facing their most critical test of a dwindling regular season, fell to surging Buffalo 5–1 because of a series of their own mis takes.

“I don’t think that they really outplayed us a whole lot,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I think it was a pretty close game in terms of work ethic, but they buried their chances.”

The victory allows Buffalo (38–29–10), which has now won its last five games, to wrest control of eighth place in the Eastern Conference from the Capitals (38–31–8) with a week and a half and five games remaining.

The Sabres had played particularly well since bot toming out in mid-February, winning 11 of 15 since the league’s Feb. 27 trade dead line. Tuesday, though, was not so much about what Buffalo did as what the Capitals didn’t do.

Rookie Braden Holtby, stellar in goal in his last three starts since being promoted from Hershey, allowed three goals on 18 shots before being pulled after the third 2:31 into the second period. He misplayed the puck 8:45 into the game, allowing Buf falo’s Cody McCormick to score his first goal of the season, and then was slow getting back on Drew Staf ford’ attempt just shy of 10 minutes later, the shot bouncing off his skate.

Then there was Ovechkin’s gaffe 17:32 into the second period, which was particularly surprising given the way the star winger had been playing over the past two weeks. Ovechkin entered the game with seven goals in the last five games, scoring in each, and seemed rejuvenated as the Capitals ramped up their quest for a fifth consecutive playoff ap pearance.

Pominville quickly put the brakes on that. The Sabres’ leader in goals, points and assists, Pominville never hesitated in pouncing on the puck, easily beating a diving Ovechkin, a hapless Wide man and an overmatched Neuvirth for his 29th of the season and second short handed.

“It’s a tough bounce on him and fortunately it bounced on my side,” Pom inville said. “We were able to capitalize on it and put it away, so it’s definitely nice to get it.”

Stafford had his second of the game 9:29 into the third, taking a pass from Tyler Ennis between a sprawling Mike Green and the crease and blowing it past Neuvirth, who had 11 saves.

Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, making his 29th start in the last 31 games, allowed only a laser from Alexander Semin off a face-off 5:07 into the second and made a season- high 44 saves. Mathieu Per reault sent the puck back ward, where it first glanced off Jason Chimera before going to Semin’s stick and to Miller’s left, over his glove.

Both the Sabres and Capitals entered the game tied at 84 points, though the Capi tals held onto the spot via tiebreaker because of their greater number of non- shootout wins. Florida, which beat Montreal in a shootout, still holds onto the Southeast Division lead by five points over Washington, and the two will meet at the Verizon Center on April 5 in the Capitals’ home finale.

The loss makes a postsea son push considerably more complicated, however. Coach Dale Hunter has called nearly every contest over the past two months a playoff game, and particularly emphasized the meeting with Buffalo as “game seven of the playoffs” following a 3–0 victory over Minnesota on Sunday.

Time and opportunity are both running out.

“You got to forget about it now, guys,” Hunter said. “It’s done. We need to win in Boston [on Thursday]. You put it behind you and you [watch] the video, you learn from it and then you move on.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440 zboyer@freelancestar.com

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