WASHINGTON — The Sabres’ dressing rooms on the road have been devoid of atmosphere since the first week of November. Long faces and voices barely above a whisper were the norm, which is what happens when losses pile up and a winless streak nears a dozen.
When the skid finally ended Sunday, it was time to party. Applause and shouts of excitement filled the room the moment the Sabres walked in from their 2-1 shootout win over Washington. Players laughed, jokingly mocked each other and praised the effort that stopped an 0-9-2 slide away from Buffalo.
“It was a total game, and we haven’t seen that in a long time on the road,” captain Steve Ott said.
The Sabres hadn’t won away from home since a 5-4 shootout victory Nov. 5 in San Jose. The losses weighed on the group, especially since they’d been playing much better in Buffalo.
“Didn’t want to make it 12 in a row,” goaltender Ryan Miller said. “It’s already gotten too far. It’s something the guys can feel good about. A lot of the things we are talking about is building an identity. That was a good win.”
Building an identity was indeed the theme of the postgame in Verizon Center.
“We want to play on the right side of the puck and we want to create ourselves an identity,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “What kind of team do we want to be? Not a team that plays one way for 20 minutes and then slips off for five. Tonight was one of those games where we can bottle this and play like this all the time.
“If we’re going to play, we might as well play with some energy and play with some compete level. It’s a lot of fun. I think this is the greatest game on earth, so when you play with some passion and you play with some good conviction, it’s a lot of fun. The guys really did, and it’s fun to watch.”
It was fun for Miller because he didn’t have to stand in front of a Washington firing line this time. The Capitals peppered him with 50 shots during the Sabres’ 2-1 shootout win Dec. 29, but Buffalo’s team defense limited the Caps to only 29 Sunday. Eleven came in the third period.
“We tried to really be below the puck and above their guys so they couldn’t create a lot, but still Millsie made a lot of good saves,” said center Tyler Ennis, who scored the Sabres’ goal.
When the Capitals did get near Miller, the Buffalo goaltender was ready. Miller made one of the best saves of his career with 2:10 to play in regulation, reaching out his stick above the goal line to rob Mikhail Grabovski. It was reminiscent of an oft-replayed save Miller made in Boston several years ago.
“That’s one of those ones where you’re completely out of options,” Miller said. “The puck came through traffic and hit me right in the pads instead of the stick. I knew I was in trouble because I saw him kind of reload and get in position. Those can certainly go wrong for you. More often than not, those guys are going to score. I don’t think he got quite all of it, and it gave me time to kind of put a blade on it.”
The save carried the Sabres into overtime and the shootout, which ended when Cody Hodgson scored the only goal.
“It feels good to contribute and get involved,” said Hodgson, who returned from an injury that sidelined him for eight games. “Winning’s fun, and I think you’ve got to have a little fun to win, too. We’re working together. We’re staying positive as a group. We’re playing the right way.
“We’re definitely going in the right direction and it feels good.”
The only shot that beat Miller during regulation didn’t even come from the stick of a Capitals player. Washington opened the scoring when backchecking right wing Brian Flynn tipped a pass past Miller, scoring into his own net with 8:59 left in the first period.
Ennis got the goal back before the period ended, making an impact at both ends of the ice. With Buffalo on the power play, the center inadvertently collided with Washington’s Joel Ward in the Sabres’ zone. It started an odd-man rush. Christian Ehrhoff’s pass to the front deflected off Hodgson’s skates, and the charging Ennis scooped up the loose puck with 1:51 left for the only shot that beat Philipp Grubauer (30 saves).
“It was just sitting there for me,” Ennis said. “First period kind of set the tone. There were a lot of hits, and we carried it through the entire game. Those games are fun.”
They are more fun when a team wins. For the first time in a long time on the road, the Sabres actually did. They return home to face Philadelphia on Tuesday.
“It was a real nice game,” Miller said. “We had good energy. I’m happy with that effort from the guys, for sure.”