WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals' explosive offense seems to be rounding into form, and on Friday they'll try to finish their longest homestand of the season on a positive note against a Buffalo Sabres squad inching toward the .500 mark.
Alexander Ovechkin had his 16th career hat trick in a 4-3 win over the St, Louis Blues on Wednesday, but all parties agreed that it was Evgeny Kuznetsov that helped make a big difference for the Capitals' offense.
“I hope he's back on his game and he has the confidence,” Ovechkin said of his fellow countryman. “It helps us when he plays well.”
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Kuznetsov had gotten off to a slow start this season, but his goal and assist against the Blues gave him his second multi-point game of the year, and the 24-year-old's skill in the offensive zone will help boost Washington's offensive attack. Kuznetsov now has three goals this season after leading Washington with 20 tallies last year.
“I thought (Kuznetsov) was dynamic — he was really skating,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after Washington's win. “That was the (Kuznetsov) that we all see that he can be. He's been getting better and better. You can see he was going to have a breakout sooner or later as long as he stayed with the program, and he has.”
The Sabres are coming off a hard-fought, 2-1 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday, but got some good news in the return of center Ryan O'Reilly, who rejoined the team's top line. He played 22:48 in his return, but may have also showed some rust after missing five games due to an oblique injury.
“I think at time he was a little extended in his energy level,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma told NHL.com after Wednesday's loss. “He's a great player, but he extended himself in a couple shifts and got stuck out there in the second, one of those long shifts and then the overtime he got stuck out again.”
The Sabres (7-8-5) have stressed getting back to even on the season, and will have another crack at it against the Capitals, who have been one of the top home teams this season at 7-3-0.
“It is a big goal of ours to get back to that .500 mark, but you come out and have a good effort against Washington and you consider it a really good week,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta told reporters after Wednesday's game.
Buffalo's goalies, Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson, have combined for a .930 save percentage, good enough for second in the league. Washington netminder Braden Holtby has posted a 9-3-2 mark in his last 14 games dating back to last season, but said that it's important that the Capitals play the full 60 minutes after giving up a couple of late goals against the Blues.
“The frustrating thing is that we've done it a few times this year,” he said. “Once it happens a few times, it becomes a habit. We have to address it and clamp down in third periods.”