All of the chatter surrounding this game revolved around how important it was, to both teams: for the Caps, it was a chance to tighten their grip on 8th place; for Bufflalo, a chance to jump over the Caps at last. The emphasis on just how important it was would make one assume that the atmosphere, the intensity and the desire to win would be high on both sides. Dale Hunter even went so far as to compare it to a Game 7.
He should have clarified that he did not mean the 2009 version.
Despite a relatively solid start, the Caps found themselves on the wrong side of giveaways, missed chances and unfortunate plays from the goalie on out - and as a result stumbled to a lopsided loss and a spot on the outside looking in.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Braden Holtby has been pretty solid in his brief time with the Caps, with one of the few blemishes coming as a result of an overly aggressive play against the Flyers. Tonight's was perhaps not as ugly, but it was still ill-advised and a reminder that he's still got some rough edges, as he went for a no-look pass behind the net and ended up bouncing it off Jeff Schultz's stick to a lurking Brad Boyes. Boyes found Cody McCormick in front of a half-empty net and just like that the Sabres had a one-goal lead.
- Unfortunately it wouldn't get any easier for Holtby, who would continue to have a rough - and short - night after letting a Tyler Myers' slapshot trickle through him to set up the easy tap-in for Drew Stafford, then giving up a huge rebound right to the last guy you want to hand the puck to: Cap-killer Thomas Vanek. And that would be all for #70.
- For a brief, shining moment, it felt like the Caps could maybe make this into a legitimate game as Alexander Semin picked the perfect time to end his seven-game goalless drought, sniping a shot past Ryan Miller right off of the faceoff to make it 3-1. Sadly it would be the only offense generated by the Caps tonight (and it capped off an eventful game for Semin, who had been on for all three Buffalo goals), but it was a hell of a shot.
- Five minutes after Semin cut the lead by one, a Dennis Wideman penalty sent the Caps shorthanded - but a breathtaking display of shot-blocking and excellent goaltending extended that feeling that perhaps, maybe, by chance, the Caps could turn the tide and get back into the game. Because nothing swings momentum back in your favor like a successful penalty kill and a standing ovation from the home crowd, right? Right??
- Ah, but the fates can be cruel at times. Particularly to Caps fans. Because just as the tide seemed to be turning, the Caps found themselves on the power play... and an Alex Ovechkin bobble at the blue line resulted in a shorthanded breakaway the other way. Jason Pominville closes in two-on-one, Jason Pominville freezes (apparently confusing both defenseman and goalie alike), Jason Pominville scores. For those keeping track at home, that was the 10th shorthanded goal allowed this year by the Caps, tied (with Detroit) for the third-most in the League.
- Someone once said that if you wanted goals, you should go to the net. And something about a bakery, it's hard to keep track. At any rate, Brooks Laich did just that on multiple occasions, driving to the net and getting himself in the perfect position to score - and on multiple occasions it either went just wide, over the net or right into the chest of Ryan Miller. Guess the bakery was all out of yeast tonight.
- Looking at the goalie matchup prior to this one, there was no question that Miller was the superior goaltender - regardless of who pulled on the jersey for the Caps, for that matter. But while Miller made some decent saves and occasionally a great save, he wasn't tested that much, even if the official scoresheet says the Caps had 45 (!) shots on him. Too many shots from the outside, too many unscreened looks at the puck, too many chances to look better than he is - and too few chances for him to whine about being jostled.
- Under the heading "stats are misleading", the Caps actually outshot, outchanced, outhit and outdrew the Sabres tonight, but it was Buffalo who would have the bigger number where it counted more. And while the stats don't tell the whole story, they do tell part of it - the Sabres were simply the more opportunistic of the two teams, more opportunistic than dominant, lying in wait and capitalizing on their few chances. Every mistake, every turnover seemed to end up in the Caps' net - a story that's become a little too familiar this season.
- Giveaways were indeed the story of the game. In order for Buffalo to be opportunistic, they had to be given opportunities, and they were given plenty. As subjective a stat as it is, the Verizon Center scorekeepers credited the Caps with a whopping 17 on the night... which on further reflection actually seems a bit low.
- Depressing to see the Caps stumble in such a huge game at home; even more depressing to see all the ugly Buffalo sweaters in the crowd. Salt in the wound for a town that has prided itself in rocking the red.
A loss like this probably begs the question, how do you rebound from an absolute collapse in a game you've been touting as "Game 7"? Where do you go from here when, in a game that's supposedly the biggest of the year, you don't show up?
The hope is that this team can pull it together, and fast. This game was frustrating and disappointing - but it was also just one game, just two points that can be regained in any of the five remaining games, a gap that is by no means insurmountable. To do so, though, the Caps will need to find more fight inside themselves than whatever that was tonight. They'll need to channel their best performances of the season into this final stretch, and make every game - every shift - count.
Because if they don't, the only thing they'll be fighting come April 11 will be the 18th hole.