WASHINGTON – The puck was in the net, and Alex Ovechkin was ready to celebrate a victory that propelled the Washington Capitals to the top of the Eastern Conference.
As he skated toward centre ice, Washington’s quirky star lifted his left leg high off the ice. Ovechkin then broke into dance, pumping his legs up and down with his arms spread before engaging in a hug with teammates Brooks Laich and Karl Alzner.
“I just made it up. I was excited,” Ovechkin said of his celebration, which came immediately after he scored 3:19 into overtime to give the Capitals a 5-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
Ovechkin took a shot from the left circle that glanced off the skate of Buffalo defenceman Andrej Sekera and past goalie Jhonas Enroth.
“It’s always nice when you score the overtime goal,” Ovechkin said in the noisy Capitals locker room.
The Capitals have 103 points, one more than idle Philadelphia. Washington has two games left and the Flyers have three to play.
Twice in the final nine minutes of regulation, the Sabres broke a tie with a power-play goal. On each occasion, Washington scored the equalizer with the extra man.
Paul Gaustad put Buffalo up 3-2 at 12:35, and Mike Knuble answered with his second goal of the game at 14:18. Then, after Drew Stafford received credit for a goal that Washington defenceman John Carlson accidentally kicked into the net, Jason Arnott tied it, scoring his 400th career goal with 51.3 seconds left
“It was a fun one for the players. Both teams couldn’t hold each other back,” Knuble said.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau wasn’t nearly as pleased with the back-and-forth pace, which he said resembled the run-and-gun Capitals of last season.
“I thought it was way too close to looking like last year,” he said. “We sort of have to buckle down.”
Despite the loss, the seventh-place Sabres got a point and now have 88. Buffalo trails Montreal by three points and moved one point ahead of the idle New York Rangers.
“Could have had two points, but this time of year we’ll take this point and try to get two tomorrow,” said winger Thomas Vanek, who scored his 200th career goal.
Buffalo was without goalie Ryan Miller, who didn’t make the trip because of an undisclosed upper body injury. Miller, who won the Vezina Trophy last season as the NHL’s top netminder, played in 64 of the Sabres’ first 77 games.
He was replaced by Enroth, who gave up two soft goals early in the game but finished with 30 saves.
Referee Bill McCreary was honoured on the ice before officiating his final NHL regular-season game. He made his debut in November 1984, when the Capitals hosted New Jersey.
“It was a real honour to finish here, and I think it was a pretty entertaining game in the end for everyone,” McCreary said.
This game was penalty-free until 7:59 of the third period, when Washington was called for having too many men on the ice.
“Give the players credit,” McCreary said. “It was their game.”
The Capitals scored with only 37 seconds elapsed when Knuble batted in the rebound of a shot by Carlson to conclude a 2-on-1 break. Alexander Semin made it 2-0 at 4:41 with his 28th goal, an easy tip-in after Enroth let a shot by Nicklas Backstrom get behind him in the crease.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff immediately used his only timeout, and it enabled Enroth and the Sabres to settle down. Vanek scored his 200th career goal at 6:30 of the period, and Stafford tied it three minutes later.
“We didn’t get the start we wanted, but I thought after that we worked hard, battled hard and got back in the game,” Ruff said. “Once we got by that (opening) segment of hockey, we were good again.”
NOTES: Washington recalled D Sean Collins from the Hershey Bears of the AHL. … Before the Capitals’ late surge with the extra man, Buffalo had been successful on 36 of 37 penalty-kills and had allowed only one power-play goal in 12 games. … Washington drew its 100th consecutive home sellout.