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Caps' Sanford snipes another, makes strong case to stay in the lineup

Caps' Sanford snipes another, makes strong case to stay in the lineup

Zach Sanford is playing like a guy who doesn’t want to come out of the lineup.

Or head back to Hershey, for that matter.

One game after scoring his first NHL goal, the Capitals rookie got another in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss in Detroit. At times, in fact, Sanford was Washington’s most effective forward as he racked up a career-high three shots on goal.

And like his milestone tally a week ago—the game-winner in a wild 6-4 victory over the Ducks—Sanford’s goal against the Red Wings was also a big one.

The Caps, fresh off their five-day bye, had been scuffling for much of the game when Sanford struck late in the second period to trim Washington’s deficit to 2-1.

The play began with Lars Eller gathering a loose puck in neutral ice and then flicking a backhanded saucer pass right onto Sanford’s stick blade. Sanford took it from there, ripping a shot through Thomas Vanek and past Petr Mrazek’s blocker.

“It was a turnover by them that Lars was able to pick it up,” Sanford said of the goal. “It actually happened the same way as my first goal last weekend. Nice pass by Lars. I was just trying to get off quick and it found its way through.”

Sanford’s first pro season has, on occasion, been a trying one for the Boston College product. He started the season in Washington, but managed just a single assist in his first 19 games before being sent to the minors to get more playing time and, just as important, regain his confidence. He was recalled for one game in mid-December, but again he went without a point and skated fewer than 10 minutes.

The 22-year-old’s latest stint in Washington, however, has gone much differently.

Against Anaheim, Sanford wasn’t having his best game through the first two periods. But then it happened: Brett Connolly fed him the puck in the waning moments of a tied game…and he snapped it into the net for his first NHL goal.

For Sanford, it was both a relief as well as confirmation that he can produce at this level.

After that game—the Caps’ last before the bye—Sanford was sent back to Hershey. He took the demotion in stride, traveled to Bridgeport, Conn., and less than 24 hours later was the Bears’ best player, registering two goals and four shots on net.

When the Caps returned to action on Friday, he and fellow prospect Jakub Vrana were both recalled for the trip to Detroit and New York. Coach Barry Trotz decided that Sanford had earned the right to suit up against the Red Wings, but the coach also indicated that he would chose between Sanford and Vrana on a day-to-day basis.

Trotz said he doesn’t consider the two to be in competition as the team seeks a long term replacement for Andre Burakovsky, who is out until mid to late March with a broken hand. But judging by Sanford’s hustle in Detroit, he certainly sees it that way.

Assuming Sanford is back in the lineup Sunday at Madison Square Garden, he said he expects the Caps to put forth a crisper, more consistent effort against the Rangers after slogging through a slow start Saturday at The Joe.

“Four or five days off is definitely tough to come back from in the middle of the season with just one practice,” he said. “But getting a game under our belt today was good for us. I think we’ll be back to our normal legs tomorrow.”

Related: Caps rusty coming off bye week, fall to last-place Red Wings

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.

MORE CAPITALS: BIZARRE SEQUENCE LEADS TO CAPS SCORING AND GETTING PENALIZED AT THE SAME TIME

A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-SABRE

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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.