WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals avoided being shut out in three straight games for the first time in their history last night, but two goals by Peter Bondra weren't enough to keep them from losing.
The Buffalo Sabres used a little bit of luck on St. Patrick's Day and a wonderful performance from backup goalie Martin Biron to win, 3-2, and send the Capitals to their third straight defeat.
Biron made 42 saves and the Sabres got the winning goal from Chris Gratton on the power play. Gratton skated around a pileup in goalie Olie Kolzig's crease to score with 9:28 gone in the third period.
Buffalo's bit of Irish luck came on its first goal when Stu Barnes sent a pass from behind the Capitals' net toward the crease and saw the puck go into the net off the skate of Washington defenseman Brendan Witt.
"That's what happens," said Caps coach Ron Wilson. "We got a lot of bounces to go our way this season, now they're not ... but give their goaltender credit."
Wilson was concerned after the game that his team seemed to have tightened up in key situations and made "bad mental mistakes." But, he said, "It's all fixable. The best thing is we go on the road and can loosen up a little bit and not worry about what we have to do to impress people here at home."
The loss ended Washington's run as the most productive team in the NHL since Dec. 1.
The Colorado Avalanche now holds that distinction with its 5-3 victory over Detroit yesterday, 66 points to the Caps' 65. But Washington's 30 wins are still the most over the same period.
"We had a pretty good effort throughout the game," said Caps forward Steve Konowalchuk, who, with Adam Oates, assisted on Bondra's first goal.
"If you have a couple bad games, sometimes the next game you can play real well and maybe not get the win, but you got to take the positives out of it."
With 6:40 left in the second period, Bondra finally got the Capitals on the scoreboard. He had been a shooting machine during the period, taking eight of the team's 21 shots.
"I know he must have had six or seven shots," said Biron. "He has a cannon and his second goal was unbelievable. He just came skating in and unloaded. It went off the crossbar and through this little opening and into the net. Unbelievable. That's why he has so many goals."
Bondra's goal set off a massive celebration among most of the sellout crowd of 18,672. But the euphoria only lasted for about two minutes, until Buffalo's Curtis Brown put a puck past Kolzig for a 2-1 lead. Bondra's second goal was his 43rd of the season.
"We worked hard and had a lot of chances for more goals," said Bondra, whose 21st power-play goal set a team record and ended a team scoreless streak that had reached 154 minutes and 48 seconds before the second-period goal ended it.
At the end of that period, things were looking a lot better for Washington than they had after the first 20 minutes, when the Sabres left the ice patting themselves on the back.
The Capitals had shown more spirit, but their shots had been wide and high. In that first period, the Sabres made the No. 1 power-play team in the NHL look like it hadn't practiced together before last night.
Washington was 0-for-3 and 0-for-4 before Bondra scored on the team's fifth try.