WASHINGTON - The Buffalo Sabres tried everything they could think of to put the Washington Capitals off their game last night, and, in the closing minutes, it almost worked.
With the Capitals scrambling to defend their offensive zone, the Sabres nearly forced overtime after being down by three goals at the start of the final period.
But after seeing their advantage shrink to a single goal, the Capitals hung on for a 3-2 win.
"We've got to tighten up," said Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, who made 35 saves, including 17 in the third period, and looked disbelieving after his team's letdown. "I don't know what else can be said."
The Capitals looked like a sound, intense team for two periods. They had come in off a fine 4-1 victory over Montreal on Monday. And they continued to show a defense-first philosophy and built a 3-0 lead on goals by Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Witt and Peter Bondra by the end of the third period.
But Buffalo, which clutched, grabbed, hooked and did any number of other tricks designed to disrupt Washington, kept pounding away and, at 2:57 of the third, Curtis Brown scored off a rebound in the crease to give his team hope and, with 5:10 left, Dmitri Kalinin scored on the power play while the Caps looked on in disarray.
"I think we thought we had an easy game," said Witt, whose goal was his first of the season. "I think we just relaxed."
Given the Caps' situation, it was a damning remark. Washington had lost five of seven games before beating Montreal. And the team had needed a players-only meeting and then a meeting with their coach to get back on the right foot against the Canadiens. It should be obvious that nothing is easy for long for the Caps.
"We lost our composure a little in the third tonight," said Mike Grier, who has gone seven games without a goal and hit the post on an open net in the final minute last night. "You'd think we'd be better with the lead by now. You'd think we'd come out in that final period and take some life out of them."
The Montreal victory gave Washington a little breathing room in the race for the Southeast Division title that also carries the No. 3 seed in the postseason with it. But by last night, Tampa Bay was again within one point of the top spot.
"We had some defensemen forget what their assignments were," said Caps coach Bruce Cassidy. "I think some guys felt comfortable. ... The mistakes we made were inexcusable.
"The bottom line is we won, but at the same time it's frustrating when guys are talking about beating the New Jerseys of the world and we have to struggle just to hang on against the last-place team in the Eastern Conference."
Washington will play at New Jersey on Saturday before returning to the MCI Center on Sunday for a game with Carolina.
Bondra scored for the second straight game, and his power-play goal broke an 0-for-19 run for Washington with the man advantage. While Washington's power play ranks sixth overall, the Caps had gone 22 periods over seven games without a power-play goal before Bondra connected.
Buffalo 0 0 2 - 2
Washington 2 1 0 - 3
First period - 1, Washington, Jagr 34 (Lang, Miller), 4:58. 2, Washington, Witt 1 (Nylander, Zubrus), 14:23. Penalties - Mair, Buf (cross-checking), 5:26; Boulton, Buf, major (fighting), 13:23; Henry, Was, major (fighting), 13:23. Second period - 3, Washington, Bondra 24 (Miller, Lang), 14:59 (pp). Penalties - Afinogenov, Buf (interference), 3:10; Barnes, Buf (hooking), 14:50; Mair, Buf, major (fighting), 17:08; Sutherby, Was, major (fighting), 17:08; Hamel, Buf, major (fighting), 17:40; Berry, Was, major (fighting), 17:40; Lang, Was (ob.-holding), 19:56.
Third period - 4, Buffalo, Brown 12 (Afinogenov), 2:57. 5, Buffalo, Kalinin 6 (Satan, Kotalik), 14:50 (pp). Penalties - Connolly, Buf (tripping), 5:27; Dumont, Buf (roughing), 8:49; Ciernik, Was (holding stick), 10:47; Zubrus, Was (ob.-hooking), 13:35.
Shots on goal - Buffalo 12-6-19-37. Washington 10-14-7-31. Power-play opportunities - Buffalo 1 of 3; Washington 1 of 5. Goalies - Buffalo, Biron 12-22-6 (31 shots-28 saves). Washington, Kolzig 25-20-5 (37-35). A - 14,031 (18,277). T - 2:20.