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Caps fumble away an opportunity in loss to Sabres

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Sports,Brian McNally
Washington falls to ninth place with five games to play

The puck bounced and the Buffalo Sabres pounced.

Down two goals in a critical game in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the Capitals had the power play and the momentum late in the second period. Instead, star left wing Alex Ovechkin fumbled a puck at the blueline and Jason Pominville skated in for the decisive short-handed goal.

The Sabres earned a 5-1 victory at Verizon Center on Tuesday as turnovers twice changed the tenor of the most important game of the season and in the process damaged Washington's chances to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Caps note
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom has passed another round of neuropsychological tests and has been cleared to return to the ice when he regains his conditioning and deems himself comfortable to play, according to general manager George McPhee. Backstrom, out with a concussion since Jan. 3, was cleared for full-contact practice with no restrictions on Saturday. McPhee said Backstrom passed his baseline tests Tuesday "with flying colors." "We'll see where it goes from here, but it looks like the worst is behind for Nicky," McPhee said.

Ovechkin's turnover came late in the second period with his team up a man. He tried to pin Pominville against the boards in the neutral zone and failed. From there it was a Sunday stroll for the Buffalo forward, who glided into the offensive zone with all the time in the world and beat goalie Michal Neuvirth to extend his team's lead to 4-1 with 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in the period.

"We lost the game, but we still have five games left. It's not over," Ovechkin said. "I don't think we play bad. We just make bad mistakes in our zone and the goal on the short-handed -- I should play [the puck with] my skate, not stick. It happens, but this mistake probably cost us the game."

It was a key insurance goal considering the Sabres were down to just four healthy defensemen. Christian Ehrhoff left in the first period with an undisclosed injury, and Andrej Sekera followed in the second period after blocking a shot. With yet another defenseman, Robyn Regehr, off the ice for a hooking penalty, the Caps had a chance to cut into the lead against their short-handed opponent. Instead, disaster struck.

It was the second of two costly turnovers. Washington coach Dale Hunter has said that his team will live with stick-handling mistakes from rookie goalie Braden Holtby, whose skills with the puck far outweigh the occasional, inevitable miscue.

But Holtby's turnover in the first period gave Buffalo the early lead. Playing the puck behind his own net, Holtby's backhand pass to defenseman Jeff Schultz was too hard and off target. Instead, the puck landed on the stick of Sabres forward Brad Boyes, who whipped a pass of his own in front to teammate Cody McCormick for a goal at 8:45 of the first.

The Caps had generated a half-dozen scoring chances on Buffalo star goalie Ryan Miller (44 saves). But with just 1:55 left in the first, Drew Stafford took advantage of a scramble sequence in front of Holtby and slammed home a loose puck for a 2-0 lead. Holtby was eventually pulled after a goal early in the second period by Sabres forward Thomas Vanek.

And so, Buffalo took control of the race for the No. 8 seed. The Sabres (38-29-10) now have 86 points. The Caps (38-31-8) are stuck on 84 and no longer control their own destiny.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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