A huge battle in the Eastern Conference playoff race is on tap tonight in D.C., as Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals host the hard-charging Buffalo Sabres at the Verizon Center.
The Sabres and Capitals enter today tied for the East's eighth and final postseason berth at 84 points and both clubs have six games left in the regular season. Washington currently holds the tiebreaker as a result of having one more win.
Tonight's test marks the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between the teams. Buffalo won the first two encounters -- both in western New York -- by a combined 9-3 margin before the Capitals recorded a 3-1 home victory on Dec. 30. Overall, Washington has taken four of six in the series and Buffalo has lost five straight in D.C.
The Sabres have been on roll lately, winning four straight and recording a 13-2-4 record over their past 19 games as they try to make the postseason for a third straight year.
Buffalo last played on Saturday and recorded a 3-1 win over the visiting Minnesota Wild. It was the Sabres' eighth straight game with a point, bringing the club's record to 6-0-2 over that stretch.
Marcus Foligno scored the game-winning goal early in the third period for the Sabres. Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson also scored and Ryan Miller posted 24 stops for the Sabres, who have outscored the opposition by 17-5 margin during the four-game winning streak.
Buffalo trailed 1-0 before the seven-minute mark of the first period and tied the score with Vanek's goal just 72 seconds into the second stanza.
"I wasn't surprised that they had better legs early on," Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said. "But we dug in with shorter shifts and came out at the start of the second period and started to make a difference."
Miller was named the NHL's Second Star of the Week on Monday after going 4-0 with a 1.26 goals-against average and .956 save percentage for Buffalo last week. Miller is expected to make a ninth straight start in net tonight and is 12-9-0 with a 2.52 GAA and .914 save percentage in 22 career games against Washington.
Buffalo is just 17-18-2 as the road team this year, but is 3-0-1 over its last four away tests.
Washington, which is also only three points behind Florida for first place in the Southeast Division, has not played as well as Buffalo lately and is 2-2-2 since a four-game winning streak from March 8-13. However, one particular Cap has been playing his best hockey of the season over that stretch, and that is Ovechkin.
Ovechkin has scored 10 of his 36 goals this season over the last 10 games and he has notched seven markers during a current five-game goal-scoring streak. Washington's captain and top sniper posted a goal and an assist in his team's 3-0 win over the Wild on Sunday and Ovechkin has three goals in three games versus the Sabres this season.
Braden Holtby also posted 28 saves for his first shutout of the season as Washington improved to 1-0-1 on a three-game homestand that ends tonight.
"He's a battler and makes lots of plays on the puck," said Washington head coach Dale Hunter about Holtby. "He likes to play the puck and that can help out the defense. Sometimes it's kind of risky, but tonight he made everything work for him."
Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault also scored for the Capitals, who are 24-10-4 as the host this year compared to a 14-20-4 mark on the road.
On the injury front for Washington, centerman Nicklas Backstrom has been out since Jan. 3 due to a concussion, but he was cleared for full participation in practice over the weekend and is close to returning to game action. The talented Swede is not expected to play tonight, but there's a chance he could be back for Thursday's game in Boston.
Backstrom was Washington's leading scorer when he was injured, and despite missing the last 38 games, he is still tied for fourth on the team with 42 points.
Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun has also sat out the last five games with a groin injury and is questionable for tonight. So are defenseman John Erskine and forward Joel Ward, who have both been bothered by lower-body injuries.