PREVIEW: Buffalo Sabres looking to sharpen offense vs. Washington Capitals

Jan 22, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger (M) looks on against the Washington Capitals in the first period at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres look to get their offense on track when they begin a four-game road trip by visiting the Washington Capitals on Thursday.

The Sabres are on a three-game losing streak that reaches back to Jan. 31, after a COVID-19 outbreak put the team on a two-week schedule hiatus. Returning to action for back-to-back home dates against the New York Islanders, the Sabres recorded their two lowest shot totals of the season — 21 shots in a 3-1 defeat on Monday, then 20 shots in a 3-0 shutout on Tuesday.

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Some rust was to be expected after two weeks off, and the defensively solid Islanders are a challenge even for teams at full strength. However, Buffalo’s scoring woes have persisted for much of the season, with only 31 goals in 12 games.

A red-hot power play (10-for-24 in six previous games) had been the source of much of Buffalo’s recent offense, yet the Sabres were 0-for-2 with the man advantage on Tuesday. The Sabres rank last in the NHL with 15 goals scored this season in five-on-five play.

Buffalo head coach Ralph Krueger described the shutout loss as “a bitter pill to swallow” considering the Sabres performed well apart from their inability to score.

“The job of us here and myself and leadership is to maintain rigid focus on the process, working on solutions for what’s not happening here and that’s our inability to score five-on-five,” Krueger said. “It’s not just individuals, it’s us as a team that needs to find that success quickly.”

Some reinforcements could be on the way for Buffalo, as Brandon Montour, Rasmus Ristolainen, Dylan Cozens and Curtis Lazar have all been activated off the COVID-19 protocol list. Montour and Ristolainen are probably likeliest to return to action on Thursday.

The Capitals were also hampered by a COVID-19 breakout in late January that finally caught up to the club this month. After starting the season with a 6-0-3 record, the Capitals began February with multiple players sidelined, three postponed games and a 0-4-0 record when Washington did take the ice.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Capitals, check out #ALLCAPS rumors, rankings, and news here.

With much of their regular lineup finally back, the Capitals snapped their losing streak Tuesday with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington collected a season-high 42 shots in the victory while rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek stopped 26 of 27 shots.

“Defensively, offensively, special teams-wise, I think that’s our most complete game of the year,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Something to be happy about and (to) build on going forward here.”

Nicklas Backstrom recorded an assist for his team-leading 19th point of the season. The forward has two goals and four assists over the course of a four-game points streak.

Washington is 3-0-1 in four previous meetings with Buffalo this season.

Vanecek has delivered some of his best work against the Sabres, going 2-0-1 with a .934 save percentage and 2.21 goals against average in three games. Vanecek is likely to make his 12th consecutive start on Thursday, as Washington has relied on the rookie while Ilya Samsonov continues to recover from a COVID-19 diagnosis.

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Linus Ullmark is Buffalo’s probable starter in net. Ullmark has a .912 save percentage and 2.63 GAA in seven starts this season.

Dating back to the 2014-15 season, the Capitals hold a 15-3-2 record in their last 20 games against the Sabres.

–Field Level Media