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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals at Sabres

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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals at Sabres

The Capitals (33-7-3, 69 points) visit the Buffalo Sabres (17-22-4, 38 points) tonight at First Niagara Center (6:30 p.m., CSN). Here’s our AAA Keys to the Game:

Grubi time?: With the New York Rangers expected to go with backup goaltender Antti Raanta on Sunday against the Capitals, the Caps could go with Philipp Grubauer tonight against the Sabres and Braden Holtby on Sunday at home against the Rangers. Grubauer is 5-3-1 this season with a 2.23 GAA and .922 SP.

Streakers: The Caps have won five straight and are just the fifth team in NHL history to win 33 or more of their first 43 games in a season, joining the Boston Bruins (1929-30: 37), Chicago Blackhawks (2012-13: 34), Pittsburgh Penguins (2012-13: 34) and Montreal Canadiens (1944-45: 33). The Caps hold a five-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won 10 straight, in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy.

Final meeting: This is the third and final meeting between the Caps and Sabres. The Caps recorded back-to-back wins over the Sabres on Dec. 28 (2-0) and Dec. 30 (5-2). “We need to limit their time and space in the neutral zone,” Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

They now know Jack: Sabers rookie Jack Eichel (13 goals, 14 assists) managed two assists against the Capitals the last time the two teams met. “He’s a 19-year-old kid with the body of a mid-20s guy,” Schmidt said. “You don’t find guys like him very often. I think over the course of this year he’s getting better. It’s a unique challenge.”

Road trippin’: The Capitals are 16-4-2 on the road this season, ranking first in the NHL in road wins (16), road points (34) and point percentage (.773). The Caps are 12-2-2 in their last 16 road games. Nicklas Backstrom has recorded 23 points (9 goals, 14 assists) in 22 games on the road this season, leading the Eastern Conference and ranking tied for fifth in the NHL in road points. Evgeny Kuznetsov has 20 points (9 goals, 11 assists) in 22 games on the road this season and ranks tied for second in the Eastern Conference in road points. Braden Holtby ranks tied for first in the NHL in wins (13), tied for third in goals-against average (1.98) and sixth in save percentage (.933) on the road.

Back-to-backs: This will be the Caps’ ninth set of back-to-back games this season They are 13-2-1 in back-to-back games this season, outscoring opponents 60-35. The Caps are 8-0-0 in the first game of back-to-back sets  and 5-2-1 on the back ends. After this weekend the Caps will have four more back-to-back sets.

Rattling Sabres: Since the beginning of the 2008-09 season, the Capitals are 17-6-4 against the Sabres and have earned a point in 10 of their last 11 contests against Buffalo (8-1-2). Alex Ovechkin has earned 26 goals and 15 assists in 38 career games against the Sabres.

Saturday Night Fever: The Caps are 9-0-2 this season on Saturdays and have outscored opponents 39-23 in those games. 

MORE CAPS: LOOKING BACK AT 'THE GOAL'

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Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

There was no tougher critic on Matt Niskanen’s Game 5 performance on Saturday than Niskanen himself.

Niskanen and his defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, were on the ice for all three of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s three goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 loss. That was striking given the Orlov-Niskanen duo is typically Washington’s best defensive pair.

That was not the case on Saturday and Niskanen took full responsibility afterward.

“First three goals are all my fault,” Niskanen said. “I had a tough first 20:30 so I've got to be better next game.”

Pretty much no one played the first goal right.

The goal came just 19 seconds into the game. Orlov turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like he could have gotten the puck, but instead played the body of Cedric Paquette. Niskanen stepped up at the blue line, but the Lightning got the puck past him creating a short rush that beat Braden Holtby who was way too far back in the crease.

Yes, Niskanen got caught a bit high, but he was just as at fault as Orlov, Kuznetsov and Holtby.

The second goal happened because Steven Stamkos tripped Orlov to create a turnover and it wasn’t called.

Niskanen got in between Ondrej Palat and the puck, but Palat beat both him and Holtby on the shot. Not sure I would put this one on Niskanen.

The third goal…well, that one was a bad play by Niskanen.

When you go one-on-one with a player, a defenseman cannot allow that player to turn the corner. That’s especially true when that player is defenseman Anton Stralman who is not exactly gifted with blazing speed. This was just a complete misplay.

Regardless of how many goals were strictly on Niskanen, that’s not the point. This was a message not so much to the media but to the team. That message was this: This one’s on me, I will be better next game.

Leaders always take responsibility. Niskanen is taking the blame here and saying he will be better in the hopes the team around him will be better as well.

They will need to be to win Game 6.

“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series where we could have melted and we just kept playing. So that's what we've got to do again, bring our best effort for Game 6 at home, win a game and then we'll go from there.

“But we're focused on bringing our best game of the season for Game 6 and we'll be ready to go.”

MORE CAPITALS STORIES:

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3 reasons the Caps lost Game 5 to the Lightning

3 reasons the Caps lost Game 5 to the Lightning

When the Capitals take to the ice at home on Monday, they will be playing for their playoff lives. They lost their third straight game on Saturday as the Tampa Bay Lightning took Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead and push the Caps to the brink.

Here is why the Caps fell on the road for the first time in this series.

A rough start

Nineteen seconds was all the time Tampa Bay would need to score in Game 5.

Dmitry Orlov turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Evgeny Kuznetsov chased after it, but instead of getting the puck he inexplicably played the body of Cedric Paquette. Paquette was able to chip it into the offensive zone to Ryan Callahan. Callahan tried to pass to the slot, but it hit off of Orlov right to Paquette who buried it past Braden Holtby who was very deep in the crease.

If Orlov doesn’t cough the puck up in the neutral zone, if Kuznetsov plays the puck instead of the body or if Holtby challenges that shot, that goal doesn’t happen. An ugly play all around for Washington.

A no-call on Steven Stamkos

Later in the first period, Orlov went to corral a puck in the neutral zone, but was pressured by Stamkos, fell to the ice and turned the puck over to Nikita Kucherov. It was very clearly a trip on Stamkos, but there was no call. Palat would score on the play to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead.

You can read more about the play here.

A rough night for Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen

Orlov and Niskanen is normally the Caps' best defensive pair, but they had a very long night. They were on the ice for each of the Lightning’s three goals of the game.

Orlov’s turnover led to the first goal, Stamkos’ trip of Orlov led to the second. On the third, Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman was somehow able to drive and turn the corner on Niskanen leading to a scoring opportunity that eventually deflected off the glove of Ryan Callahan and into the net. Stralman is not the speediest of players. The fact he was able to go one-on-one with Niskanen and get in behind him was surprising to see.

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