By Bill Hoppe
Following a rough few weeks in which the Sabres plummeted to 11th in the Eastern Conference, players hoped two days away from the rink would recharge them, perhaps clear three straight losses from their heads.
The Christmas break could be a turning point, a start of a fresh season.
“It was something we said, ‘You know what? It’s time to start talking about it. It’s time to get down to business. It’s time to clean up certain areas of the game we’re not happy with,’” winger Matt Ellis said Monday following the Sabres’ 4-2 triumph over the Washington Capitals, a game they lead 4-0 at the 14:41 mark.
The Sabres, so wretched recently, clearly used some brief rest and relaxation to their advantage, pouncing on the hapless Caps early and often inside the First Niagara Center.
When Roman Hamrlik was whistled for a delay of game penalty just nine seconds into the contest, captain Jason Pominville scored at 51 seconds, converting a nifty play from Drew Stafford and Jordan Leopold.
The Sabres never looked back. Ellis scored at 3:10. Christian Ehrhoff followed at 11:15, just his third score and second past a goalie. Michal Neuvirth was yanked after only six shots for Tomas Vokoun.
Rookie Brayden McNabb’s power-play goal, his first NHL tally, ended the frenzy. The Sabres finished the opening period with only eight shots.
“We got a good jump. In this league, the lead is important,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who made 20 saves. “I thought that we did a great job of supporting each other and playing the game fast, and that’s what gave us opportunities.
“We capitalized tonight, scoring early on that power play. The guys attacked the net on the rush. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, we’re going to set up in the zone.’ They had the puck, they went for it.”
Pominville added: “Just to get away from the rink and not have to think about hockey for a couple days hopefully will benefit us.”
The Sabres had the struggling Caps, losers of four of the last six, on their heels from the get-go.
“It obviously changed the game,” Ruff said. “You take advantage of an early power play, we seen where we haven’t and momentum can go the other way. I thought we did a nice job early on. We should’ve had more.”
The Sabres improved to just 8-9-3 at the FNC, the site of several collapses this season. When goals from Matt Hendricks and the enigmatic Alex Ovechkin got the Caps back in the game, the Sabres never flinched before the capacity crowd of 18,690 fans.
“We had to keep pushing,” Miller said. “That’s going to be a learning process. We haven’t had a lot of leads late. Learning how to protect by learning how to maintain a little bit of that aggressive nature is important.”
Ten Sabres made the score sheet, something they sorely needed with their scoring too top heavy.
“It was definitely something that got us jacked up,” Ellis said. “It was real well balanced tonight. Ten guys ended up on the score sheet. Nabber gets his first NHL goal, which gives you that excitement because everybody remembers what it was like to score that first one. Those are the things you need to build on.”
The 20-year-old McNabb, playing his 12th NHL game, scored from the slot, also the defenseman’s first point.
“It’s exciting,” said McNabb, who was sporting the gold “game MVP” helmet. “A lot of people don’t have a chance to play in the NHL, and to get a goal it’s pretty exciting. I’m just thrilled.”
Brad Boyes, returning from an ankle sprain, created the play by finagling through the right circle after Derek Roy fed him the puck.
“It was a great play by Boysie and Roysie,” McNabb said in a vaudevillian tone.
Top goal scorer Thomas Vanek, who’s been slowed by an upper body injury recently and has been skipping practice, had an assist, giving him eight points in five games. The winger skated 18:30 overall and 8:16 during the third period.
“It’s something that he’s got to work his way through,” Ruff said about the injury. “He felt pretty good today. I think the days off helped him and hopefully that gets him past.”