Capitals hold off Sabres, 3-2, for third in row, await Penguins

April 15, 1994|By Budd Bailey | Budd Bailey,Special to The Sun

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Washington Capitals had a successful dress rehearsal for the playoffs. On Sunday, fans can see how it plays on Broadway, or at least in Pittsburgh.

The Capitals defeated the Sabres, 3-2, at Memorial Auditorium last night in the final regular-season game for both teams. Washington goes into Game 1 of the playoffs Sunday against the Penguins on a three-game winning streak.

The Capitals scored the first three goals last night, all in the first 15:29 of the first period. From there, Washington relied on the goaltending of Byron Dafoe and a strong defensive effort to hold off the Sabres.

"We took their top players and compared them to Pittsburgh's," said Dafoe, who had 32 saves in only his fifth game as a Capital this season and first start in two weeks. "We played it like we were playing Pittsburgh. We did a great job tonight."

The game had no meaning in the standings to the Capitals, but it was a crushing loss for the Sabres. With Boston's 3-2 loss to Hartford last night, a Buffalo win would have moved the Sabres into fourth place in the Eastern Conference and given them the home-ice advantage in the first round against the Bruins. Instead, Buffalo finished sixth and will open in New Jersey on Sunday.

The Capitals came out aggressively in the opening minutes. Steve Konowalchuk scored on a breakaway only 42 seconds into the game, and Kevin Hatcher added a power-play goal on a slap shot about three minutes later. When Dimitri Khristich added another goal with the man-advantage later in the period, the Caps had the Buffalo fans booing their own team.

"We felt we had a lot at stake too," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "This is our last game before the playoffs start and we don't want to go in on a bad note. . . . They may have been a little tight."

Alexander Mogilny put Buffalo on the scoreboard a minute into the second period, and Wayne Presley reduced the lead to 3-2 with 7:21 left. But the Sabres could not beat Dafoe for the tying goal.

If nothing else, Dafoe gave Schoenfeld something to think about when it comes to a starting playoff goaltender. "We haven't made that decision," the coach said. "Sunday's a long way away. He did play a terrific game."

The Capitals will need more than good goaltending to beat Pittsburgh in the best-of-seven series. "What we have to do against the Penguins is eliminate their great players from carrying the puck and generating speed in the neutral zone. . . .," Schoenfeld said. "It takes a 20-man commitment to pull it off. If one guys misses an assignment, it can throw the whole thing off."

"It's nice to get on a little roll," said Hatcher. "We've been a more consistent team the last 30 games."

The script was a big hit in Buffalo. The Caps will find out how it works Sunday when the curtain goes up on the NHL playoffs.

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