That was the plan, said Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville: To skate into Washington, D.C. and overwhelm the Capitals from the start in the teams' critical battle for sole possession of the last Eastern Conference playoff seed. They worked the plan to perfection, scoring two first-period goals en route to a humbling 5-1 defeat for the Washington Capitals on home ice.
"They were feeling good offensively, feeling good defensively. We've got to do a better job of holding the fort there at the beginning. We just never recovered really," said Washington's Mike Knuble.
"We got back to 3-1, but I think the shorthanded goal was No. 4, that was a big blow, too."
As the puck bounced over to Alex Ovechkin at the left power-play point, the Capitals captain flubbed the keep-in and then couldn't corral the disc as it trickled to center ice. Pominville swooped in with speed and beat Ovechkin for possession as the Washington star fell to the ice. The Sabres captain pumped a shot past Michal Neuvirth — who replaced starter Braden Holtby after he surrendered three goals on 18 shots — and sucked the life out of a Capitals rally.
"I know from playing defense on the power play that it's not an easy situation. You're no used to it. So there's a bouncing puck behind him, and I had a little bit of speed going to get behind him," said Pominville. "It was an unfortunate bounce on his side and a fortunate bounce on my side."
But it wasn't a night of lucky bounces for Buffalo. It was a dominant, emphatic victory. It was the Sabres captain out-muscling the Capitals captain. It was one goalie looking all-world and the other looking unsettled. It was a boisterous minority of Sabres fans in the building out-screaming the Capitals faithful. It was one team showing a desire to make the playoffs and another failing to show up for a game they chatted up as a Game 7.
It was another total team effort from the Sabres, from Cody McCormick's goal after a Holtby turnover to Drew Stafford's two tallies to Thomas Vanek's 25th of the season from Cody Hodgson and Corey Tropp.
Defensively, Ryan Miller was brilliant again in a 44-save performance. His confident game softened the blow when the Sabres were down two defensemen: Christian Ehrhoff played just 5:46 before leaving with lower body injury, while Andrej Sekera left during the second period following an Ovechkin shot to the leg, returning in the third. (Coach Lindy Ruff said after the game that Ehrhoff will miss "some time." Not good.)
"We did a good job trying to keep him to the outside. He's a dynamic player. He brings a lot of energy and his shot is maybe the best in the League. He likes to speed up and get the middle of the ice. We tried to keep him to the outside. When he did get looks, guys paid the price [to defend him]. And [Miller] made the stops. It was a team effort," said Pominville.
Stafford said the Sabres have "been in a playoff mode where every game is a must win. But we're not done yet."
"We know we got it in this room. We've got the talent," he said. "It's just a matter of executing out there. We're going to keep the foot on the accelerator."
The game meant more to Buffalo than it did the Capitals. The Sabres will lose any tie-breaker with Washington due to the disparity in non-shootout wins. Now two points clear of the Capitals with five games left for both teams (86 to 84), they're in control of their own destiny.
"It can really irritate you tonight, but tomorrow you've got to come fresh to the rink and ready to play and do our best to win as many as we can out of the next five. Now we're going to start needing a little bit of help and that's kind of the first time we've been in this position where we're going to start needing some help," said Knuble.
"You've got to set a target of trying to get four out of these five and finish extremely strong. And then even if you do that and hold up that end of the bargain, you've got to wait for a little bit of help somewhere else."
The Capitals had chatted up this battle with a Game 7-level of pressure and importance. Had it been one, their season would be over.
Now Coach Dale Hunter, who chatted up the battle as a seventh game, has to pretend they're in Game 8.
"You gotta forget about it now. It's done. You put it behind you and you learn from it," he said. "You won't sleep as good tonight, but you'll come back tomorrow morning."