|2020-21 Record||Goaltender||GAA / SV%|
|Washington Capitals||1-0-0||Vitek Vanecek||2.26 / .917 (AHL)|
|Buffalo Sabres||0-1-0||Linus Ullmark||2.69 / .915|
The Capitals, now considered the underdogs of the division, were looking for their first win of the season as they opened up their abbreviated 56-game campaign on the road. Would Zdeno Chara pick a fight? Would Alex Ovechkin score the Caps’ first goal of the season? Lots of questions to be answered, but the biggest of them all was; would Washington win? It’s no secret that in the post-season, Washington struggled to score those gritty, dirty goals that helped them win their first Stanley Cup. But new acquisitions during the off-season gave Caps fans lots to look forward to.
On Thursday, the Washington Capitals defeated the Buffalo Sabres, 6-4, in the first of eight matches between the two. Alex Ovechkin, who has at least one goal in four of the Caps’ last five season openers, (6G, 2A) is once again on the quest to another 50-goal season after being snubbed of the accomplishment last season. Peter Laviolette, in his first game as Caps’ head coach, led his team to their first win of the season, and hopefully the first of many. Laviolette has led his teams to post-season appearances in 8 of his last 11 seasons as bench-boss. He has a historically strong record of success early on with each team he has coached.
Early on, it was apparent that the change in leadership translated to more disciplined play, and smoother neutral zone transitions. Just 5:43 into the first period, Nicklas Backstrom got the Capitals on the board first, as he was reunited with Ovechkin and TJ Oshie on the top line.
The Sabres received the first power play of the evening as TJ Oshie was called for elbowing just over three minutes later. It only took 18 seconds on the power play for Sabres’ winger Taylor Hall to tie the game 1-1.
Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin nearly made it 2-1 moments later, after the Caps’ defense was shaken up. But then Washington had their first opportunity with the man-advantage as Dahlin went off for holding. At the 10:33 mark, TJ Oshie tallied his first of the season, a power play goal, to make it 2-1 himself.
The second period saw two more Capitals’ goals, both from defensemen. Washington killed off a Nic Dowd penalty (holding) early on to keep the Sabres at bay. Seven minutes and five seconds into the middle period, John Carlson made it 3-1, and six minutes later, at the 13:23 mark, Brenden Dillon scored to give the Caps a 4-1 lead.
Unfortunately, before the end of the period, Tobias Rieder scored to half Washington’s lead. But the Capitals led heading into the third period.
Leading in shots 23-17, Washington had an assertive lead where it mattered most, 4-2. But just 22 seconds into the final frame, Jack Eichel’s shot towards Samsonov ended up behind the young goaltender to bring Buffalo within one. Jake McCabe was credited with the goal.
Seconds later, Jakub Vrana reinstated his teams’ 2-goal lead. Vrana’s loss of confidence late last season left him goalless, and pointless in the playoffs.
With just over 10 minutes remaining, Caps heavy-hitter Garnet Hathaway threw a massive open-ice hit on Eric Staal which ended with Dowd in the penalty box for two minutes. Buffalo’s power play which was 1-for-2 so far, were unable to convert on their third man-advantage.
Brenden Dillon and Jake McCabe became involved with just under five minutes remaining, but Dillon was the victor. Because each team in the division will be playing one-another eight times over 56 games, we expect some unlikely rivalries to emerge; perhaps this may be one of them?
Both received five-minute majors, but the penalties didn’t affect the number of skaters on the ice. With the fight, McCabe completed his Gordie Howe Hattrick (goal, assist, fight).
With two minutes remaining, Carter Hutton vacated the Sabres net for the extra attacker, and Victor Olofsson brought his team within one. After dominating for most the game, the Capitals began to unravel, just as they had so many times in seasons past. But with 62 seconds left, a feed from Nick Jensen to Garnet Hathaway ended up in Buffalo’s empty net, and so the Caps put up the 10th goal of the game to make it 6-4.
Carter Hutton got the start for the Sabres, and for Washington, Ilya Samsonov. After being named the Caps’ #1 goaltender for the 2020-21 season, Samsonov still will need to fight for that spot, since head-coach Peter Laviolette suggested that the starter down the stretch will be based on early-season performances. Samsonov made 22 saves on 26 shot to end his night with a .846 save percentage. Hutton allowed five goals on 27 shots for a .815 save percentage.
It is expected that Vitek Vanecek and Linus Ullmark will start between the pipes for the Capitals and the Sabres, respectively, in their second meeting of four in the month of January.
NBC Sports Washington and MSG Network- Buffalo will all be covering Caps vs Sabres, with puck drop shortly after 7:00pm.
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