A chance to inch closer to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is at stake when the Buffalo Sabres visit the Washington Capitals on Wednesday.
The Sabres enter the matchup having halted a four-game slide (0-3-1) with a 4-3 road win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday. Buffalo is now within five points of the Islanders for the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot, and the Sabres have three games in hand on New York.
“It’s cliche but one win at a time, one game at a time,” Buffalo forward Alex Tuch said. “That’s the mentality. It really helps. It does, if you’re able to just not look at the standings, not look at what other teams are doing.
“Focus on yourself and focus on your next opponent, it allows you to play your best games. … We’ve got to focus on Washington and not worry about anything else going on around us.”
Tuch returned to the Sabres’ lineup with a bang against Toronto, scoring twice, including the game-winning goal to reach 30 on the season. The 26-year-old, who missed eight games due to a lower-body injury, has scored in five of his past six games and has produced multi-point efforts in four of those contests.
After allowing at least 35 shots against in six straight games, Buffalo has tightened up on defense in the past two games, holding both opponents to fewer than 30 shots. The Sabres held the Maple Leafs without a shot on goal for 17 minutes in a stretch covering parts of the second period and third periods.
“We made defending a greater focal point for us,” Buffalo coach Don Granato said. “I think our guys recognized (Monday) ways that they could impact it more and more as the game went along.”
The Capitals have lost three of their past four games, including a 5-3 setback against the host New York Rangers on Tuesday. Washington trailed 4-1 early in the second period before pulling to within one midway through the third.
The Capitals are tied with the Sabres in points but have played two more games.
“Getting behind one or two or three goals is tough, but I thought we were right there in it,” Washington forward Nic Dowd said postgame. “We gave ourselves a chance to win that game. I thought we outplayed them a majority of the game, minus maybe that first 10-12 minutes.”
Defenseman Rasmus Sandin has enjoyed a smooth transition to Washington since being acquired from Toronto on Feb. 28. The 23-year-old Swede has nine points (one goal, eight assists) in five games since the trade, including a pair of three-assist outings.
He picked up an assist against the Rangers to set a Capitals record for most helpers in a player’s first five games with the club, besting the previous mark held by Geoff Courtnall, who had six in 1988-89.
“He’s come in here, and offensively, he’s contributed,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “What’s been really impressive is the way he has played the game, a 200-foot, two-way game. … Defensively, he’s done a really good job as well. You notice the offense, but we’ve been really impressed with the defense, too.”
Washington was without captain Alex Ovechkin (lower-body injury) and forward Sonny Milano (illness) against the Rangers. It was unknown whether either will be available to oppose Buffalo.