Wilson beat Ullmark with a slick backhand shot, and his shorthanded goal in the second period held up as the eventual game-winner in the Capitals’ 3-1 victory.
“[Dowd] was screaming at me, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Wilson said. “He wanted me to take it to the net, and I was lucky to put it in. But he made it very clear that he didn’t want to be part of that two-on-oh. That’s kind of funny.”
Nicklas Backstrom and Conor Sheary also scored for Washington, which earned its second consecutive victory.
Now the challenge will be sustaining those efforts. The New York Rangers come to the District on Saturday afternoon, and the New Jersey Devils will be in town Sunday night.
Thursday’s game was a continuation of the Capitals’ improved performance Tuesday night in a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. That result ended Washington’s four-game losing streak and set the wheels in motion for a promising homestand. Thursday was only the third game in four weeks in which the Capitals had a full roster of skaters available.
“Build on Pittsburgh: That was the focus for tonight,” Wilson said. “. . . We didn’t really give them much, so we’re feeling a little better about our game. So we got to keep that rolling and just keep the momentum going.”
The spotlight was on rookie goaltender Vitek Vanecek again Thursday. He had 22 saves as he made his 12th straight start, keeping the Sabres scoreless until Victor Olofsson scored a power-play goal with 8:33 remaining in the third period. Vanecek, who seemed to struggle during the losing streak, has made 48 saves on 50 shots in his past two games. Wilson failed to clear the puck past Olofsson at the left point, setting up the play that prevented the shutout.
“I don’t think much has changed with him,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said of Vanecek. “He’s given us an opportunity to win hockey games from the start of the year. But I think what we were trying to do is put a better game in front of him, and so it’s been a little bit better the last couple games. But he’s given us a chance. He’s done a good job. He did another good job tonight.”
While Vanecek has said he is comfortable playing every game, he could get some help in net as soon as this weekend. Ilya Samsonov, who played two games this week during a conditioning stint with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., after his recovery from the coronavirus, is returning to D.C.
Laviolette said that with the Capitals’ schedule starting to get busier, Samsonov should be in the net “at some point.”
The Capitals were lucky to escape the first period Thursday without any casualties. Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner both had shots hit the post in the first five minutes of the game.
Instead, Backstrom opened the scoring in a fast-paced first period. After Alex Ovechkin’s shot attempt on the power play, Backstrom found the loose puck and knocked it behind Ullmark at 17:23 for his team-high eighth goal and 20th point of the season. He has recorded at least one point in five consecutive games (three goals, four assists).
Backstrom’s goal came on the Capitals’ only power-play chance of the game as the unit remained scorching hot at Capital One Arena. Washington leads the league at 56.3 percent (9 for 16) at home this season, and the Capitals have at least one power-play goal in eight of their past 10 games.
Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie were credited with the assists. As for Backstrom’s offensive spark this season?
“I don’t know,” Backstrom said. “Good question. I think maybe just the mind-set of maybe going to the net a little bit harder. I think the coaching staff wants the team to play harder in front of the net, create a lot of shots and create those secondary chances. Yeah, maybe that’s the reason. Also, maybe I’m at the right spot at the right time, too, a lot of times.”
Wilson followed Backstrom’s tally at 6:38 of the second period. The forward’s six goals rank him second on the team behind Backstrom, and he has 13 points in 13 games. Wilson now has five career shorthanded goals.
Sheary pushed the Capitals’ lead to 3-0 at 7:28 of the third period. After Ullmark made a diving save on Sheary’s shot from the left side early in the game, the winger finally got the puck past the goaltender in the third for his second goal in as many games. Lars Eller was credited with the primary assist.
“I think Lars said to me on the bench that I deserved that one after getting robbed,” Sheary said. “I think it’s a good sign that our line is creating chances and I’m getting opportunities. I don’t know what else I could have done; I got all of that shot. Linus just made a great save on me. . . . I was fortunate to get another bounce and be able to score at the end there.”