The energy for a game against a last place team, at least prior to puck drop, was probably greater than anyone on the Capitals had ever experienced before.
Even without fans, the day was devoted to Nicklas Backstrom’s 1,000th career game and memories of his time as a Capital. It had the feeling of a day that couldn’t go wrong.
And just over a minute in, that energy vanished.
The Sabres jumped out to an early lead and never relinquished it, as the Capitals lost 5-2 to the NHL-worst Sabres in a disappointing night at Capital One Arena. And the compete level, at least according to one Capital, could’ve been better.
“Yeah, but at the same time recognize there’s no easy games,” center Lars Eller said. “I think we were lacking a little bit of compete level, and poor decision-making at times just cost us today.”
Buffalo was without its best goaltender, Linus Ullmark, and its best skater, Jack Eichel, but that didn’t stop the Sabres from being the better team for the first 40 minutes. It was just the 11th win of the season for the Sabres, who tallied their 29th point, which is the worst mark in the league.
At the end of two periods Thursday, the Capitals were down 25-17 in shots and 4-2 in goals. A third period push added nothing to the goal total for the Capitals, as the Sabres added an empty net goal late to put the game to bed.
The Sabres’ five goals were tied for the second-most they’ve scored this season.
“Anything's possible,” said coach Peter Laviolette, when asked if the Capitals overlooked the Sabres. “The bottom line is we didn't play well enough to win.”
If the compete level was indeed lacking, it showed in the turnover margin where the Capitals made far too many mistakes, including some in their own zone which cost them dearly.
“Turnovers played a huge factor in it,” Laviolette said. “A lot of times you turn the puck over because you're not moving the way you're capable of moving. Your strides, you're on your toes and they were on their toes tonight. They were forcing the issue. We weren't at that speed or at that gear and oftentimes, just throw the puck or move the puck without the strides and it goes the wrong way.”
The lone bright spot for the Capitals, though, was that the Islanders lost to the Bruins and the Penguins lost to the Flyers in a shootout. Meaning, even though they have a game in-hand, the Capitals maintained their lead for first place in the division with 12 games left to play. They lead the Islanders by two points and the Penguins by three. The Bruins, down eight points, have three games in-hand, too.
Additionally, Thursday marked the end of the road for the Capitals this season in terms of facing the true bottom of the division.
They’ll end the season with two games against the Bruins, three against the Islanders, two against the Penguins, three against the Flyers and two against the Rangers.
“Yeah, when I (said) poor decisions, it was usually decisions that resulted in turnovers,” Eller said. “Yeah, sometimes not moving our feet. Sometimes trying to make plays that weren’t there. Sometimes we got picked off. Different reasons, but we just weren’t on our game tonight. I’m not sure why we thought it was going to be easy or what it was, but we weren’t sharp. We weren’t sharp.”