BUFFALO, N.Y. – Alexander Ovechkin is quickly discovering how much more satisfying it is to score goals now that the Washington Capitals find themselves in the playoff hunt.
Ovechkin scored twice, giving him an NHL-leading 54 goals, and played a big role in setting up Nicklas Backstrom’s goal in a 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night in a key Eastern Conference playoff-race matchup.
“It’s a good night for the team. Big win,” said Ovechkin, shrugging off his second-consecutive multigoal game after he scored three times in a 10-2 win over Boston on Monday.
What mattered more was the Capitals jumping into 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, a point behind Buffalo and two back of Philadelphia, which holds the final playoff berth.
That’s a far better position than where Washington stood at this point in each of Ovechkin’s previous two seasons.
“The last two years, we didn’t play for something. … We started thinking about vacation,” he said. “It’s more interesting when you play for something.”
And Ovechkin is leading the way with six goals and four assists in his past four games since ending a career-worst seven-game goal drought.
“He’s a fantastic player,” said Olaf Kolzig, who made 25 saves for his 299th career victory. “I don’t know what else you guys can write about him, but he’s the best I’ve ever played with.”
Since sitting 14th in the East at the midpoint of their season, the Capitals have gone 16-8-3. The win against Buffalo also allowed them to stay within three points of Southwest Division-leading Carolina, who beat Atlanta 6-3 earlier in the night.
The Sabres, on the other hand, are suddenly headed in the other direction, dropping to 2-4-1 in their past seven.
They’re playing sloppy on defence – all three Capitals goals were scored on Sabres turnovers. And Buffalo is having difficulty winning at home, dropping to 2-5-1 in its past eight.
“Mental mistakes have cost us goals,” Sabres forward Derek Roy said. “We gave up four or five breakaways. … We preached before the game to look over our shoulder and see where Ovechkin is. And we didn’t do so.”
Ovechkin opened the scoring 15 minutes in on a breakaway, when he sneaked in behind two Sabres defenders.
He then had the Sabres looking the wrong way when he had a hand – but no assist – in setting up Backstrom’s goal, scored 13:27 into the second period, 50 seconds after Ales Kotalik tied it at 1.
Ovechkin started the play by checking Steve Bernier off the puck at the Sabres blue-line. Viktor Kozlov then hit a wide-open Backstrom, who slipped a shot through Ryan Miller’s legs, as the crowd booed, believing Ovechkin should have been penalized for hooking Bernier.
“Were we smart enough to win the game? No,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We got caught trying to be too aggressive.”
Ovechkin then sealed the victory, scoring with 6:41 left, when his snap shot from the left circle hit Miller’s pad, but had enough power to trickle in.
Kolzig did his part by making three big stops in the first five minutes of the third period, the best coming when he kicked his left pad out to foil Drew Stafford’s shot from in close.
For Ovechkin, the 54 goals are two more than he scored as a rookie two years ago, and moved him into second on the Capitals’ single-season list, one more than Bob Carpenter. Dennis Maruk holds the record with 60 scored in 1981-82.
Notes: Ovechkin inched closer to becoming the first to reach 60 goals since Mario Lemieux scored 69 and Jaromir Jagr 62 in 1995-96. … Sabres D Henrik Tallinder didn’t play after hurting his shoulder and neck in the first period of Buffalo’s 5-2 win at Philadelphia on Tuesday. Dmitri Kalinin replaced Tallinder after being a healthy scratch against the Flyers. … The Capitals improved to 15-14-5 on the road, the first time they’ve won 15 road games since going 15-16-6-4 in 2002-03.