Connolly scored in his return from a concussion sustained in last year’s playoffs and Buffalo beat the Washington Capitals 2-0 on Saturday to clinch the best record in the NHL.
“It’s a big monkey off my back,” said Connolly, who scored his first goal in almost a year. “It wasn’t something I was really thinking about. I was just going to try to come out and keep it simple out there and try to make the game as easy as possible. But it was really nice to get that.”
The Sabres’ franchise-record 53rd win was enough to lock up the team’s first Presidents’ Trophy title and home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs that begin next week. Buffalo will wrap up the regular season Sunday at Philadelphia.
“It’s well-earned, but it’s a small step on the way to where we want to get,” coach Lindy Ruff said.
Buffalo wasted no time ending Washington’s disappointing season. Derek Roy and Connolly scored in the first 10 minutes, giving the Sabres a sufficient cushion and ensuring that the last-place Capitals would finish the season with the same point total (70) as last year.
In the locker room after the game, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis vowed to be more aggressive in free agency this off-season.
“We’ll add to the team until we’re like Buffalo,” Leonsis said. “I really take heart in looking at some of these teams that were on the bottom. Buffalo wasn’t a very good team for a long time and had a very good business model, the same with Pittsburgh, and now both of those teams are 100-point teams and have very high expectations, and I think that’s where our bar is going to raised.”
Ryan Miller preserved Buffalo’s lead with his second shutout of the season. One game after setting a franchise, single-season record for wins, he stopped 26 shots for his 40th victory.
The all-star goalie stopped four difficult shots in the second period and made a dazzling save from the seat of his pants in the third, prompting chants of “Mil-ler!” from the sizable group of Buffalo fans.
“It’s nice if you get a few fans in there that remind you you’re not in quite as hostile an environment as you thought,” Miller said.
He stopped Alex Ovechkin’s stuff attempt of a rebound one minute into the period and snagged a deflected shot out of the air 90 seconds later.
When Miller gloved Ovechkin’s wrist shot at 10:51 of the second, the fans began their serenade. For an encore in the third period, he slid to his backside on a cross-ice pass to Kris Beech and denied Beech from point-blank range.
Roy put Buffalo ahead 96 seconds in. Olie Kolzig denied Maxim Afinogenov after Afinogenov’s rush down the right wing, but Kolzig lost sight of the rebound, which lingered in the crease. Roy raced in and shot the puck in.
Connolly added an insurance goal halfway through the period. After Daniel Paille forced a turnover inside Washington’s blue-line, he dropped a pass to Connolly, who fired a low shot that flew through traffic in front of Kolzig and in.
“Dan Paille made a great play because I was really caught flat-footed on the breakout,” Connolly said. “He was able to strip the guy of the puck and left it there for me.”
Connolly had been sidelined by post-concussion symptoms and a broken leg that delayed his comeback six weeks ago.
The Sabres limited Ovechkin to eight shots and no points. He entered the game needing two goals to reach 100 for his two-year career. Instead, he finished the season with 46 goals and 92 points.
Notes: Daniel Briere’s quest for a 100-point season was hindered when he was ejected early in the third period for spearing Washington’s Milan Jurcina during a skirmish in front of the Capitals’ goal. Briere’s ejection ensured his first consecutive games without a point since Jan. 1-3. He has 95 points. … Washington was 0-for-5 on power-play opportunities that totalled nine minutes.