Ryan Miller's hypnotic effects threw the Washington Capitals into a funk the first time they played this season. A goalie for the Buffalo Sabres, Miller stopped 49 shots en route to a 2-1 shootout victory Dec. 29.
It was bad enough that the Capitals lost to one of the NHL's worst teams, but afterward, they kept losing. In all, they dropped four consecutive games before getting back in the win column against Tampa Bay Jan. 9 and Toronto Jan. 10.
Fresh off a 3-2 victory against the Maple Leafs, the Caps hosted Miller and the Sabres Jan. 12, and it was a sleepy affair. This time, Miller stopped 28 shots and the Sabres won, 2-1, again, after another shootout.
The only goal Miller allowed was during the first period, a throw-it-to-the-net shot from Capitals forward Jason Chimera. It appeared to hit the stick of Sabres backchecking center Brian Flynn and went in. It was Chimera's eighth goal of the season and first since Dec. 21.
The Capitals (22-16-7) will get a chance to break Miller's spell Jan. 14 when they host the San Jose Sharks (28-12-6), before starting a three-game road trip the following night against Metropolitan Division leader Pittsburgh.
The Capitals had a chance to pick up four points against Toronto and Buffalo, but came away with three. As of Jan. 12, Washington (51 points during 45 games) was holding off the New York Rangers (51 points, 47 games) and the Philadelphia Flyers (50 points, 46 games) for control of second place in the Metropolitan Division.
The Caps-Maple Leafs game featured the return of Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth, lead changes, hard hits, two heavyweight fights and the rare sight of Caps head coach Adam Oates losing his temper.
Oates was enraged that a referee had whistled Caps defenseman John Erskine for four minutes roughing because of a second-period dustup with Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who received two minutes despite swatting Erskine.
From the bench, a visibly heated Oates voiced his displeasure.
"Phaneuf took two cheap shots when the ref was in the way," Oates said. "We all saw it. I thought the ref was in a position to see those two shots."
Later during the period, Toronto enforcer Colton Orr squared off with Erskine, likely seeking retribution for the Phaneuf squabble. That came seconds after Caps rookie forward Tom Wilson had fought Buffalo forward Carter Ashton. Both battles were Verizon Center crowd pleasers.
Washington forward Alex Ovechkin's first-period goal (his NHL-best 32nd of the season) off a pretty dish from linemate Mikhail Grabovski gave the Caps a 1-0 lead. After two Toronto scores, Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom collected a loose puck and threw it toward the goal. It deflected off the skate of Leafs forward Jay McClement and past goalie Jonathan Bernier.
Washington forward Joel Ward scored the game-winning goal with 8:09 left during regulation; moments after the Caps had finished a power play. In their man-advantage set, Ovechkin passed to center Marcus Johansson, who found Ward open in the slot for a one-timer to beat Bernier.
Making his first NHL start since Nov. 22, Neuvirth had 32 saves. He was injured in late November, and call-up Philipp Grubauer has seemingly become Oates' first choice when picking a starting goaltender, surpassing even Braden Holtby. The Caps have been carrying all three goalies on the roster.
"Good for him," Oates said of Neuvirth. "Good for us -- we need the points. Where we go from here, I don't know."
Against Buffalo, Oates went back to Grubauer, who made 30 saves during the loss. After Chimera's goal, Buffalo forward Tyler Ennis scored on a power play to tie the game, 1-1, late during the first period. Wilson was in the box on a charging call.
The Caps had two good scoring chances during the third, but Miller made a spectacular stick save on Grabovski, and Washington defenseman Karl Alzner's apparent goal during the final minute was waved off because of a tripping penalty on Backstrom.