Buffalo Sabres left wing Marcus Foligno (82) battles for the puck against Washington Capitals right wing Joey Crabb (15) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, in Washington. The Capitals won 3-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
WASHINGTON - An NHL routine gone missing for 262 days made an overdue return Sunday: Alex Ovechkin scored a goal, and the Washington Capitals won.
Like old times. The two-time league MVP nailed a one-timer from the left circle on a power play, skated a few feet, bent his left knee and unleashed that familiar downward celebratory fist pump. He then collected the customary row of high-fives as he skated past the Capitals bench.
And, naturally, it proved to be the decisive goal in the game, coming with 14:49 remaining in a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals hadn't won—and Ovechkin hadn't scored—since May 9, 2012, during a playoff series against the New York Rangers.
"We finally win," Ovechkin said. "So it's much, much better for us right now. No pressure (on) our shoulders."
Joel Ward scored his third goal of the season, John Erskine got his first since the 2011 playoffs, and Michal Neuvirth made 22 saves for the Capitals, who had opened with four consecutive losses for the first time since 1993-94. The sluggish start—which included far too many needless penalties and defensive lapses—led players and new coach Adam Oates to openly question the team's work ethic.
Not so on Sunday. The Capitals went to the penalty box only twice and didn't allow a power play goal for the first time this season. After the final whistle, the players gathered at centre ice and raised their sticks to the fans, a fitting showing of thanks from the last team in the league to get a win. It was also Oates' first as an NHL head coach.
"I was kind of hoping it would be sooner," Oates said, "but I'm glad."
Ovechkin's goal gave Washington a 3-1 lead. Marcus Foligno put in a rebound with 9:47 remaining to pull the Sabres within one, but Neuvirth and the Capitals survived Buffalo's final push for a tying goal.
Ovechkin should have had a second goal in the final minute, but he hit the post of an empty net after the Sabres had pulled Ryan Miller for an extra skater. Nevertheless, Ovechkin looks more comfortable now that he's back on the left wing. He was on the right side for the first time in his career for most of the first three games, an experiment by Oates that's been shelved for now.
Tyler Ennis scored in the first period, and Miller made 27 saves for the Sabres, who have lost three straight after opening the season with a pair of wins. Buffalo played without left wing Thomas Vanek, who had been on the ice for all 11 goals in Buffalo's first four games. Vanek sat out with a muscle strain, sustained in the loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, and was replaced by Nathan Gerbe on the top line with Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville.
"As a line they didn't get much going on," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. "It looked like maybe a little fatigue in their game. ... A couple of our top guys didn't quite have it."
NOTES: Sabres 18-year-old rookie C Mikhail Grigorenko was stopped from point-blank range early in the third period and remains without a point through five games. The Sabres will use up a year of his entry-level contract if he plays in one more game, so the team has to decide whether to send him back to the juniors. "I'm going to look at it again," Ruff said. "I thought overall it was a good showing for him. You'd like to see him finish that play." ... The Capitals had led for only 2:32 all season before Erskine's second-period goal. ... The Sabres entered the game as by far the worst faceoff team in the league and got even worse, winning only 20 of 53 draws (38 per cent) against the Capitals. ... Washington C Marcus Johansson, who had no points and a team-worst minus-5 plus-minus rating over the first four games, was a healthy scratch for the first time this season.
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP