BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Washington Capitals looked reasonably ready for postseason play last night, and they cleared up the confusing Eastern Conference playoff picture in the process.
The Caps held on to defeat the Sabres, 3-2, in the final game of the regular season. They won even though they started a third-string goalie in Byron Dafoe, and had absolutely nothing at stake.
Washington will open the playoffs Sunday in Pittsburgh. The dTC Sabres, who were involved in a scramble for position with Boston and Montreal but failed to improve on it, will have a first-round matchup Sunday in New Jersey.
"I look at the Sabres and see a team a lot like Pittsburgh," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "They have several world-class players. They have [Alexander] Mogilny, [Dale] Hawerchuk and [Doug] Bodger. Pittsburgh has Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens and Larry Murphy. We simulated our playoff game plan tonight."
The Capitals held a 3-0 lead after the first period, and limited the Sabres to a goal in the second and third periods. Steve Konowalchuk, Kevin Hatcher and Dimitri Khristich scored for Washington. Mogilny and Wayne Presley scored for the Sabres.
Dafoe, making his first start in two weeks, had 32 saves.
The Sabres had a chance entering the game to capture the fourth seed -- and home-ice advantage -- in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but they certainly didn't play like it in their first 20 minutes. If anything, the Capitals looked like the team that had something at stake.
Konowalchuk took a pass from Jason Allison and skated in alone on Buffalo goalie Grant Fuhr. A quick move to the left led to an easy goal 42 seconds into the game.
Hatcher made it 2-0 on a power play at 3:59. He took a pass from Peter Bondra on right wing, and his slap shot beat Fuhr above the goalie's left shoulder. It was Washington's third shot of the game.
"It's nice to get on a little roll," said Hatcher. "We've been a more consistent team the last 30 games. We have to do a good job from here on out."
The Caps couldn't keep that shooting percentage up, but they did add a third goal at 15:29. Defenseman John Slaney made a strong pass from the right point, hitting Khristich on the doorstep. Khristich easily scored his 29th goal of the season.
The Sabres came out with more intensity to open the second period. They scored one goal, and had some chances at a couple of others.
Mogilny had the puck behind the Washington net while the Caps were short-handed. What looked like a pass bounced off either defenseman Calle Johansson or Dafoe and trickled over the goal line at the 1:01 mark.
After that initial Sabres burst in the first five minutes, play was generally even for the rest of the period.
The Sabres had a two-man advantage for 1:38 early in the third period, but couldn't score. Presley cut the Washington lead in half with a goal at the 12:39 mark. A deflected pass wound up on his stick in front of the goal, and he scored easily.
Defenseman Joe Reekie prevented a sure Buffalo goal with about nine minutes left in the period. With the puck sitting in the crease, Dale Hawerchuk looked to have a easy tap-in, but Reekie tripped him to prevent the center from getting off a shot. The Capitals killed off the penalty.
Despite the loss, Buffalo won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed, edging New Jersey, 220-218. Also, Dominik Hasek became the first goalie in 20 years to finish the season with a goals-against average below 2.00.
Hasek, who did not play last night, allowed an average of 1.95 goals per game -- the best in the league since Bernie Parent posted a 1.89 mark for Philadelphia in 1973-74.