If the Capitals are going to be a threat once again in the Eastern Conference, their best players need to be their best players. It's finally starting to happen. The top line was on form Friday night for the second game in a row, a 3-1 win over the hard-luck Sabres.
"When your top line scores -- Nicki and Alex and Alex -- the rest of the team plays hard," Washington coach Dale Hunter said. "And they feed off it."
If the Sabres are going to rebound, they'll have to keep patching together lineups. They were already without six injured players entering the game before Ehrhoff got into a fight with Troy Brouwer late in the first period.
The defenseman with the 10-year, $40 million contract skated to the locker room and didn't return.
"He's going to miss some time ... probably weeks," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who did not disclose the nature of the injury.
One of Ovechkin's two goals was actually a pass attempt that got deflected into the net, but the Capitals captain has five goals in seven games, a further sign that he is emerging from the spotty play that has run parallel to Washington's slow start.
The former two-time NHL MVP has 14 goals on the season, moving ahead of Backstrom and Jason Chimera for the team lead.
"He's a goal-scorer," Backstrom said, "and he should be up there."
Backstrom's goal was the 100th in his NHL career. Semin had two assists, giving him multiple points in back-to-back games for the first time this season. Tomas Vokoun made 25 saves as the Capitals got one back against their worst nemesis of the season.
Washington has had two of its most deflating performances in Buffalo, losing 5-1 in the last game before coach Bruce Boudreau was fired. They then fell behind 4-0 in a 4-2 loss on the day after Christmas, showing they still have a ways to go before getting a consistent rhythm under new Hunter.
But the Capitals came home from Buffalo to play perhaps their best game of the season, Wednesday's 4-1 win over the New York Rangers.
Now they've beaten those pesky Sabres.
"In the locker room, we just say we owe them," Ovechkin said. "and we just have to have a pretty good start."
Washington and Buffalo have been hovering close to each other in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings, but the Capitals have pulled three points ahead of the Sabres and have won seven of 14 under Hunter.
The game was only 27 seconds old when Mike Weber was whistled for a boarding call for a nasty hit on Chimera. Ovechkin capitalized on the ensuing power play, albeit purely by accident, when his cross-ice pass to Brooks Laich was deflected by Ehrhoff toward the net, catching Miller off guard.
Washington's second goal featured crisp passes in the offensive zone that went from Ovechkin to Roman Hamrlik to Semin to Backstrom.
The Capitals outshot the Sabres 11-2 in the first period, but the Sabres gained momentum in the second and scored when Hecht put in a rebound off a shot by Thomas Vanek. Buffalo outshot Washington 15-6 in the period.
But Ovechkin put the game away with a one-timer from high in the slot from a feed by Backstrom with 5:50 remaining in the third.
Afterward, the Sabres sounded like a team in need of a good bounce or two.
"I mean, they got a fortunate one on the first one," right wing Jason Pominville said. "We kind of would like to get a few of those go our way, but that's just the way it's been going for us."
The Capitals have even more reason to be excited about 2010 first-round Yevgeni Kuznetsov after the Russian captain had three goals and six assists in a 14-0 win over Latvia at the world junior hockey championship in Canada on Thursday. Kuznetsov plays in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. "He should here next year," Washington general manager George McPhee said. "He's ready to play here, and he needs to be in a better league." ... Buffalo D Andrej Sekera missed his first game with an upper-body injury that is expected to sideline him for weeks. He was replaced by Marc-Andre Gragnani, who had been a healthy scratch for the past four games. ... After the game, the Capitals recalled F Cody Eakin from Hershey of the AHL. To make room, D Mike Green (right groin) was played on injured reserve. The move is retroactive, so Green can come off at any time.