Both the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres spent Christmas feeling dissatisfied about their seasons so far. Each team will have plenty to say about whether the other can begin to turn things around before the end of 2011.
The frustrated clubs square off Monday night at Buffalo in the first of two meetings in a five-day span.
The Sabres (16-15-3) haven't exactly played well at the First Niagara Center, going 7-9-3 there, but they must be happy to be back in western New York after getting outscored 15-6 on an 0-3-0 trip before the holiday break.
They had 42 shots Thursday at Toronto and killed all six of the Maple Leafs' power-play opportunities, but that somehow still added up to a 3-2 loss - their eighth defeat in 11 games overall.
"Obviously the couple days rest here is going to be nice to spend time with our families and maybe not think about hockey - think about other things," leading scorer Jason Pominville said. "But we wanted to end this on a pretty good note. The effort was there, the results weren't and if we keep putting efforts on like this and limit those little brain farts a little bit, we're going to get on a roll here."
Much like Buffalo, the Capitals (17-14-2) expect to return to the postseason but find themselves outside of playoff position.
They can at least find reason for optimism after coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the third period Friday at New Jersey, earning a point in a 4-3 shootout loss.
"They never gave up. And we've been doing it lots of times," coach Dale Hunter said. "We came up short, but they never gave up, so that's a good sign for our team."
The Capitals have been outscored in the first and second periods this season, but they have a 39-32 edge in the final 20 minutes of regulation. They haven't been outscored in the final period in nine consecutive games.
"We're really comfortable in the third," center Brooks Laich said. "Teams spend a lot of energy in the first two periods against us and we're able to push in the third, but we have to have that push earlier in the game, too."
Ovechkin, who hasn't had a multipoint game in his last 22 contests, was a minus-4 in a 5-1 loss at Buffalo on Nov. 26. That was one of the roughest games of the season for goalie Tomas Vokoun, and Michal Neuvirth has started the Capitals' last four games after replacing him during a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia earlier this month.
Whichever goalie is in net may not have to face Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek, who couldn't finish his team's most recent game due to an upper-body injury. He's part of a lengthy Buffalo injured list, which includes standout defenseman Tyler Myers, former 40-goal scorer Brad Boyes and newcomer Ville Leino.
Ryan Miller has struggled to carry the load. The former Vezina Trophy winner has a 3.44 goals-against average in eight starts since returning from a concussion, and a 4.45 mark on the Sabres' recent trip.
He's lost four of his last five starts against Washington, which hosts the Sabres on Friday.