WASHINGTON – Lindy Ruff was worried about Tim Connolly.
The Buffalo coach did without the 26-year-old centre for all but two games a year ago due to a severe concussion, and Connolly has already missed five games this season with an abdominal strain this season.
Ruff watched as Connolly was helped off the ice midway through the second period after a puck tagged him just under the left eye. Trainers worked on Connolly, and sporting eight sutures, he returned to the ice for the third period, and it was a good thing he did.
On his knees, just in front of Washington goalie Olie Kolzig, Connolly backhanded a rebound in the net with 3:42 left in the third period, lifting the Sabres to a 5-3 victory over the Capitals on Friday night.
After Jason Pominville’s long shot was batted away by the goalie, Connolly tapped it past him to break a 3-3 tie.
“You’re scared that any player who has a concussion history gets a puck in the face,” Ruff said. “First of all, I was hoping no broken bones. A lot of times there, it can be an eye socket. Then, the second thought is concussion again.
“I still think there’s more there,” Ruff said. “He’s still working his way through the various injuries he’s had.”
It was Connolly’s fifth goal of the season, and gave him points in four straight games.
While Ruff was concerned, Connolly shrugged it off.
“I took a shot in the face,” Connolly said. “It was just a stinger.”
While Connolly’s face was being repaired, he watched on television as the Sabres tied the score at 2-2, and rode an exercise bicycle before the third period.
“I felt pretty good. I just went back out there and went to work,” Connolly said.
The Sabres won their fourth straight against the Capitals, who were seeking to complete a 4-0 homestand for the first time in more than seven years.
Jochen Hecht added an empty-netter with 1:14 to play for the final margin. Derek Roy, Maxim Afinogenov and Drew Stafford also scored for the Sabres.
“We had to earn everything we got tonight,” Ruff said.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Laich had Washington’s goals.
Since Bruce Boudreau took over as Washington’s coach, the team is 6-4-1, and the five goals allowed by Kolzig were the most in his 11-game tenure. The interim coach was distressed that his team allowed Connolly to score.
“Everybody in the crowd and everybody here knew they were going to score,” Boudreau said. “Taking a penalty and stopping the play is something we should have done.”
Kolzig allowed two bad goals. Stafford gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead just 19 seconds into the third period when he brought the puck from the back of the net and sneaked it past Kolzig for his sixth goal of the season.
A rare mental error by Kolzig enabled them to tie it at 1-1 with a short-handed goal at 18:57 of the first period. After the Sabres cleared the puck, Kolzig came about 50 feet out of the net to snare it and try to propel it up the ice. Instead, he fanned on it, and the puck skittered to Roy, who had an empty net to shoot at. It was Roy’s 12th goal of the season.
“You can’t gift wrap two goals,” Kolzig said. “The first goal – I never go out and play the puck with one hand. It was just a rookie mistake…Third one was a bad break.”
Washington tied it at 5:09 of the third when Laich stole the puck from goalie Ryan Miller behind the net and fired it into the open net.
“Olie gave us one,” Ruff said. “But, the gods gave one back.”
Ovechkin gave Washington a 1-0 lead when he took a cross-ice pass from Backstrom just to the right of Miller, wound up and slapped the puck into a Buffalo defender. Instantly, it snapped back to Ovechkin, who slapped home the rebound at 13:12.
The power-play score, Ovechkin’s 23rd goal of the season, gave him points in 16 of his last 17 games.
Backstrom’s fifth goal 38 seconds into the second period gave Washington a 2-1 lead, and Afinogenov tied it 2-2 with 1:18 left in the period.
Notes: There were three penalties on the teams for too many men on the ice – two against Washington, and one against Buffalo. Ovechkin served both penalties for the Capitals. … Buffalo’s Teppo Numminen, who had open-heart surgery in September, travelled with the team for the game. The defenceman was cleared to practice on Wednesday. … The Sabres host Chicago on Saturday – their ninth back-to-back. Buffalo will play 20 sets of consecutive games, tied with the Blackhawks for the most in the NHL.