It was captain on captain. It was hockey’s oldest and truest form of will, a one-on-one puck battle. Who wanted it most?
Turns out it was Buffalo Sabres winger Jason Pominville, who stole the bouncing disk from Alex Ovechkin at the Washington point during a Capitals power play, skated in on a 2-on-1 break and scored with 2:28 to go in the second period for the dagger, giving the Sabres a 4-1 lead.
Game, set, match.
Oh, you can look at a number of different plays in what amounted to a gigantic 5-1 victory for the visiting Sabres on Tuesday night, the win giving them (for now) a two-point advantage over the Caps for the eighth and final playoff spot, but that play was indeed the moment.
We had all lauded Ovechkin for his tremendous play over the past month or so, and deservedly so. He had been absolutely dynamite during a stretch in which it appeared the Caps had finally figured things out.
But on this night, Ovechkin was kept off the scoresheet and absolutely frustrated by the Sabres.
While it is certainly far from over for the Caps, they once again confounded their fans with a disappointing effort on such a huge stage at home.
That giveaway by Ovechkin was representative of the way the Capitals as a team handled the puck all night, to the tune of 17 giveaways compared to nine for the Sabres. You’re not going to win many games with that kind of puck protection, or lack thereof.
The Caps also didn't get the required saves on this night, another theme at times this season. Youngster Braden Holtby was yanked after giving up three goals on 18 shots. Michal Neuvirth, who has disappointed most of the season, didn’t fare much better in giving up two goals on 13 shots.
And when you size up the chances of the Caps and Sabres to grab the final playoff spot, it is hard to not look at goaltending as a deciding factor.
But enough about the Caps, this night belonged to a Sabres team seemingly on a date with destiny as they improved to 14-2-4 since this magical stretch began Feb. 19.
Does anyone really want to face this team in the first round?
Star netminder Ryan Miller continued his torrid run as well, confident and poised in turning aside 44 of 45 Washington shots. I think it’s safe to proclaim that the 2010 Olympic tournament MVP is back to his 2009-10 Vezina Trophy form.
And he’ll need to keep that form Friday night when the Sabres host the goal-crazy Pittsburgh Penguins.
What the Penguins will find out is what Washington discovered Tuesday night: the Sabres have a balanced attack. Three different lines scored on this night, including the opening tally from Cody McCormick and the fourth line.
But whether it’s Tyler Ennis with Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno, Derek Roy with Pominville and Ville Leino, or Cody Hodgson with Thomas Vanek and Corey Tropp, the top three units all represent a threat.
Stafford had a pair of goals and Vanek also scored for a Sabres team that might have suffered an important loss. Top-four blueliner Christian Ehrhoff left the game with what the club called a lower body injury. Leading the Sabres in ice time before play Tuesday night at north of 23 minutes per game, it’s stating the obvious to say the Sabres can ill afford to lose him for any extended period of time.
But that was the lone negative development on a night when the Sabres took another giant step in their improbable playoff run, which saw them 10 points out of a postseason spot in mid-February.
If you didn’t believe in the Sabres a week ago, it’s impossible that you don’t now.