WASHINGTON — Knowing they’d be without Alex Ovechkin and three other prominent players for their home opener, the Washington Capitals talked about the gaping holes left in the lineup and then rallied around them.
Playing without Ovechkin, centre Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenceman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov because of pandemic protocols, the Capitals gutted out a 4-3 shootout victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night to snap an early-season losing streak.
“Sometimes when you’re faced with adversity, those are the sweetest wins: the ones where you have to overcome some obstacles,” first-year coach Peter Laviolette said. “We certainly missed the guys that aren’t in there, but we felt good about the lineup and it was a really good win — a really good, hard-fought win for us.”
It was even more hard-fought because top-line winger Tom Wilson left early in the third period with a lower-body injury. Wilson’s status will be re-evaluated Saturday, another blow for a team that will have to still play three more games without Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Orlov and Samsonov.
Those players’ absences Friday meant rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek getting a second consecutive start with recently signed 39-year-old Craig Anderson backing up and unheralded forward Brian Pinho making his regular-season NHL debut. Vanecek made 24 saves in regulation and overtime and was perfect in the shootout to pick up his second victory of the season, as defenceman John Carlson scored the shootout winner.
“I wasn’t thinking about it,” Vanecek said of his first NHL shootout. “I want to just catch every shootout and win the game.”
Nicklas Backstrom and Nic Dowd also scored for the Capitals, who had lost their previous two games at Pittsburgh: one in overtime and the other in a shootout. This kind of game wasn’t by design, but it counts as two points just the same.
“We want to win hockey games in good ways and feel good about ourselves,” Dowd said. “Yeah, we’ll have to grind games out but that’s not the intent.”
Buffalo rookie Dylan Cozens scored his first NHL goal on a top-shelf snipe past Vanecek in the second period. Eric Staal and Riley Sheahan each scored his first goal since joining the Sabres.
Linus Ullmark made 29 saves and was spotless in the shootout until Carlson beat him. Buffalo hast lost four times in five games.
“You’ve got to realize that we’re going to need a little bit more,” Staal said. “Losing is never acceptable. It doesn’t matter when it is. But there’s also a process to how you win. We’re working at that.”
Ullmark was playing his first game since learning of the death of his father at age 63. He found out after a morning skate earlier in the week and decided it was best to take a few days away from playing.
“I thought all that he’s gone through in the last week, the emotions that he’s gone through kind … him dealing with the passing away of his father, we’re really pleased with where he’s at,” coach Ralph Krueger said. ”He seems to be managing it quite well.”
NO NEW COVID ABSENCES
Washington did not have any more players added to the NHL’s list of those unavailable because of COVID-19 protocols beyond the four missing Russians. The Capitals were fined $100,000 Wednesday for breaking league rules since those four players were together in a hotel room not wearing masks.
Before getting injured, Wilson picked up his sixth point in five games and has been one of Washington’s best players so far this season. Laviolette said, “Hopefully it’s not too bad.”
Buffalo forward Kyle Okposo, considered a game-time decision, remained out with a lower-body injury. Goaltender Carter Hutton didn’t travel with the team because of an apparent head injury from a collision Tuesday in Philadelphia.
These teams face off again Sunday afternoon in their fourth meeting in 11 days. Puck drop was moved up four hours to 3 p.m. so it wouldn’t conflict with the Buffalo Bills playing in the AFC championship game.