WASHINGTON – Nicklas Backstrom isn’t in a giving mood, and the Washington Capitals couldn’t be more delighted with their first-line centre’s newfound stinginess.
Backstrom had two goals, Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists and the Capitals beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 on Wednesday night in a battle of division leaders.
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has been imploring Backstrom to focus more on shooting more than distributing pretty passes, a message that’s clearly been received. Backstrom has 10 goals in his last 11 games after scoring four in his first 26.
“He’s got a good shot – it’s sneaky quick,” Boudreau said. “We’ve been asking him for a long time now to not be so generous, be a little more selfish when he has the puck.”
Backstrom’s first goal, his 13th of the year, ignited another strong first period for the Southeast-leading Capitals. His second came during a dominating finish, when the Capitals scored twice on the man advantage after Buffalo had pulled within a goal.
“I think that’s part of our game plan – we want to have a good start with a lot of energy, physical and everything,” Backstrom said. “If you work hard, the goal opportunities are going to come. We played a solid 60 minutes and that’s a good game for us.”
Mike Green had a goal and an assist, and Brendan Morrison also scored for the Capitals, who have won nine of 12 games. Washington improved to 11-2-3 at Verizon Center and its four-game home winning streak is a season high.
Paul Gaustad and Tim Connolly scored for the Northeast-leading Sabres.
Washington pressured Sabres goalie Ryan Miller with a 15-4 edge in shots in the opening period, taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Backstrom and Green. The Capitals have scored an NHL-high 47 first-period goals.
“I thought we played the perfect first period – you’d like to grab that one and keep it,” Boudreau said. “You get two goals on (Miller) … and you have to play solid defence because you’re not going to get too many more on him.”
Backstrom one-timed a shovel pass from Ovechkin in the left circle 1:18 into the game, and Green’s drive from the right point knuckled off the stick of Buffalo’s Derek Roy and fluttered by Miller at 6:47.
“They made some good plays. I think we gave them a little too much respect in the first period,” Miller said. “We let them carry the puck in and go cross-box, passes for one-timers and they were beating us to every loose puck. It’s tough against that line and you’ve got to be solid, be hard on them.”
Gaustad said the Sabres paid for a sluggish beginning.
“We need more than shot in the first 14 minutes. That’s unacceptable,” he said. “We can’t let it happen. We can’t accept that at all.”
Added Miller: “We essentially spotted them a period.”
With the teams skating four-a-side early in the second period, Gaustad kept the puck on a 2-on-1 rush and wristed a shot past Michal Neuvirth from the right circle for his seventh goal.
Morrison briefly restored the two-goal cushion at 10:48 of the second on some nifty improvisational play. After overskating a second chance at Tomas Fleischmann’s rebound, Morrison scored on a between-the-legs backhanded flip at the right post.
“It’s the composure. A lot of guys would have just flailed away at it,” Boudreau said. “(Morrison) had the composure to stop it, get it, pull it back, put it between his legs and get it in. It’s a skilled player’s move.”
Just over two minutes later, Connolly tipped in Steve Montador’s right-point slapper.
Backstrom made it 4-2 on a two-man advantage with 9:05 remaining in the game after Fleischmann had drawn two minor penalties. Alexander Semin threaded a nice pass through traffic in front of the net and Backstrom cut a tough angle at the right post.
“Five-on-three, you have to score. We have great players, skill guys and you have to use it,” Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin followed with his team-high 24th goal on a power play with 7:50 left on a slapshot from the left circle.
NOTES: The Sabres failed to convert on two power plays and are three for 48 with the man advantage over their past 13 games. … Buffalo LW Thomas Vanek missed his third straight game because of an abdominal injury, while C Nathan Gerbe sat out his seventh consecutive game with a groin problem. … Washington was playing only its second home game in 20 days. … Morrison has 10 goals and the Capitals are the only NHL team to have six players with double-digit goal totals. … Fleischmann picked up his 100th career point on Morrison’s goal.