The Washington Capitals experienced the latter in losing a 2-1 decision to the Buffalo Sabres in the freestyle competition for the second time in two weeks.
The Capitals could not even take solace in the fact that the goal that they scored was even a goal that they scored. Washington opened the scoring, as it were, 11 minutes into the first period on a play that started when Jason Chimera took a pass from Joel Ward at the Buffalo blue line. Chimera skated down the left wing boards with Sabre defenseman Mark Pysyk keeping himself between Chimera and the Sabre net. What Pysyk could not do, however, was close a passing lane that Chimera exploited to get the puck to the front of the Buffalo net where Marcus Johansson was headed. The pass never reached Johansson, though. Center Brian Flynn, trying to do the right thing by backchecking Johansson, managed only to get his stick on the pass, redirecting it past goalie Ryan Miller and into his own net.
That goal might have stood up for the rest of the period – the rest of the game, in fact. However, Tom Wilson was whistled for a charging penalty at the 17:28 mark. With Wilson in the box, Buffalo converted the power play opportunity with just 1:51 left in the period when Tyler Ennis pulled the puck loose from a group of bodies in front of goalie Philipp Grubauer, then lifted it over a sprawling Grubauer to tie the game.
That was it. For the second time this season the Caps and the Sabres played 65 minutes to a 1-1 draw. And, for the second time this season the Sabres would ride Ryan Miller’s perfect slate in the Gimmick, stopping all three attempts he faced, until they could get a goal of their own, this time courtesy of Cody Hodgson, who ended matters in the third round when he snapped the puck over Grubauer’s left pad and into the back of the net.
-- Buffalo has defeated just two teams on two occasions this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and now the Capitals.
-- Hey, how’s that second line experiment working? Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer combined for four shots (Laich had a shorthanded shot on goal), three penalties, and no points. In three games that makes 13 shots at even strength among them, four penalties, and one point, that one recorded on an unassisted goal by Nicklas Backstrom off a turnover against Toronto.
-- Ryan Miller has played 130 minutes against the Caps this season and has stopped 77 of 79 shots. That is a 0.92 goals against average and a .975 save percentage. Oh, and he stopped all nine trick shot attempts in the two games for good measure.
-- Philipp Grubauer has not been quite as conspicuous as Miller in these games, but he has been almost as effective. In his two games facing Miller he stopped 46 of 48 shots in 130 minutes, a 0.92 goals against average and a .958 save percentage.
-- You could say the Caps skated in bad luck. With the clock ticking down to two minutes left in regulation Miller made a stupendous stick save of a point blank attempt by Mikhail Grabovski, getting the bottom edge of his blade on the puck as it was about to cross the goal line, deflecting it out of the air and past the post. Then, with 53 seconds left in the game it appeared that the Caps finally solved Miller, courtesy of Karl Alzner, of all people. However, just before Alzner found the back of the net, the referee signaled a penalty against Nicklas Backstrom for tripping (nudging, bumping, jostling) Cody Hodgson. Finally, in the Gimmick, Alex Ovechkin had a chance, maneuvering Miller down to the ice, but he could not lift a forehand over Miller’s left pad, and the lanky goaltender padded the puck away. But hey, c’mon… they needed luck? Against Buffalo??
-- The Caps did not get much in the way of power play opportunities, two of them in fact. Not that they did anything with what they had. One shot on goal, that one coming from John Carlson. The Caps finished with more shorthanded shots on goal (two).
-- Connor Carrick recorded his first NHL career assist on the Chimera goal. More impressive, perhaps, was that he finished the game with three more minutes of ice time at even strength (16:44) than either Carlson (13:45) or Alzner (13:44).
-- Carlson and Alzner, it should be noted, was the pair with the least amount of even strength ice time in this game. Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov each had more than 20 minutes of even strength ice time alone.
-- Aaron Volpatti had a high-energy evening, six hits credited in just 7:37 of ice time. What is more surprising is that Nicklas Backstrom was credited with the next highest number of hits for the Caps (five).
-- Failing to get an extra standings point in regulation or overtime, the Caps are once more tied with the New York Islanders for last in the Metropolitan Division in regulation and overtime wins (14).
One can imagine at the end of this season regretting the two standings points the Caps left on the table with the pair of trick shot losses to the worst team in the league. Yes, Ryan Miller is certainly a world class goalie, but the Caps had their chances, too, especially in this game, and did not bury them. The way things stand on this Sunday evening is that there are now five points separating the second-place Capitals and the seventh-place Columbus Blue Jackets in the Metro Division.
That tight bunching of teams puts pressure on the Caps to lift their game to a level not displayed against the Sabres. San Jose and Pittsburgh are next up on the schedule, back-to-back games at that. Then the Caps get a couple of road tests in the division, at Columbus and at the New York Rangers. How daunting is this part of the schedule? The Caps are 1-15-1 in their last 17 meetings against San Jose. Pittsburgh is 18-3-1 since they lost consecutive games before Thanksgiving. Columbus has won three in a row and four of their last five contests, including two shutouts. The Rangers have the same recent record – three straight wins and four in their last five games, and they still have Henrik Lundqvist, as if Ryan Miller was not enough.
This is a week coming up that, when the ice chips settle, could be very ugly or a turning point of the season for the Caps. It might have been made more important for those two standings points the Caps left on the table to the Buffalo Sabres in the last two weeks.