Mike Knuble, Alex Ovechkin

Capitals beat Sabres in OT to claim a small lead atop the Eastern Conference

Even with some key defensemen out with injuries, the Washington Capitals are clearly peaking at the right time. In fact, after some ups and downs during a transitional 2010-11 season, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals now find themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference.

For at least one night, that is.

Ovechkin provided a jubilant victory dance after he shot the overtime game-winner through Buffalo Sabres backup goalie Jhonas Enroth, who might have to turn around and play again tomorrow in a big game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Washington 5, Buffalo 4 (OT)

It looked like this game might be ugly, as the Capitals raced to an early 2-0 lead before the five minute mark. Yet the Sabres showed another sign of their consistent resilience this season, as Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford tied it up within five more minutes. That’s how the first period would end.

After a score-less middle frame, Paul Gaustad gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead and then the two teams’ power play units took over. Mike Knuble tied it up on a Washington PP, Stafford scored his second goal of the night on a Buffalo man advantage and then Jason Arnott sent it into overtime on the power play as well. Ovechkin then sent a shot that bounced off of two Buffalo players, then into the Sabres’ net to earn Washington what could be a key extra point. Both Knuble and Stafford produced two-goal games for their respective teams.

This gives Ovechkin “only” 30 goals on the season, as the flashy Russian’s numbers took a bit of a dive but his joy for the game never left. He’s been looking more and more like the Ovechkin of previous, all-world seasons lately, so it makes sense that the Capitals are back on their familiar perch atop the East.

We’ll give you the rundown of how this contest – and plenty of other Saturday games – will affect the Eastern Conference playoff picture in the next post.

Goalie nods: Days after debuting against the Sharks, Martin gets second career start… against the Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 21:  Spencer Martin #30 of the Colorado Avalanche plays in goal against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on January 21, 2017 in San Jose, California. This is Martin's first NHL game.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Haven’t run this one through the folks at Elias yet, but Avs goalie Spencer Martin might be on the verge of history.

Martin, who made his NHL debut in Saturday’s OT loss in San Jose, will be right back in goal as the two teams flip venues — Colorado hosts the Sharks tonight at the Pepsi Center.

So Martin — a 21-year-old rookie — first makes his big-league debut, then gets a second consecutive start, all against the same opponent. Can’t imagine that’s happened too many times.

There’s an interesting dynamic at play beyond the historical stuff, too.

Last week, the Avs shut down Semyon Varlamov until after the All-Star break so he could deal with a lingering, troublesome groin injury. Around the same time, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman speculated that Colorado might look to change its situation in goal, writing “I’m not sure Colorado is too secure in what they have.”

Given this season is toast, it would appear the Avs are analyzing what they’ve got in Martin. He does have some pedigree — the 63rd overall selection in 2013 — and has played reasonably well for AHL San Antonio this year. Of course, gauging Martin will be tough. He’s playing behind one of the worst teams in the league, and is still really inexperienced. In fact, he’s the second-youngest goalie to appear in an NHL game this season.

For the Sharks, Martin Jones is in goal.

Elsewhere…

Henrik Lundqvist, fresh off a 21-save shutout of Detroit on Sunday, will go back-to-back when the Rangers host the Kings at MSG. No word yet on who starts for L.A.

— Carolina gave Cam Ward a rare night off on Saturday, as Michael Leighton was in for a loss to Columbus. Ward returns to the starter’s crease tonight in Washington, where he’ll face Braden Holtby.

Brian Elliott, who came on in relief of Chad Johnson in Saturday’s blowout loss to the Oilers, gets the start for Calgary in Toronto. The Leafs will counter with Frederik Andersen.

— Ondrej Pavelec looks for his third straight win since being recalled as the Jets host the Ducks. Jonathan Bernier, who came on in relief of the injured John Gibson on Saturday, appears to be in for Anaheim.

Mike Smith, who made 45 saves in a win over Tampa Bay this past weekend, goes for the Coyotes. No word yet on who starts for the visiting Panthers.

Pavelec, Jets aren’t ruling out return next year

Winnipeg Jets v New York Islanders
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For the longest time, the talk in Winnipeg was how to move on from Ondrej Pavelec.

Amazing what a pair of wins can do.

Since being recalled from the AHL last week, Pavelec has backstopped the Jets to back-to-back victories — stopping 64 of 70 shots, for a .914 save percentage — and now, both he and the organization are being asked about a potential return next season.

From the Free Press:

In the fall, he accepted his demotion to the AHL with humility and class and has been a calming presence since returning to the Jets last week.

A scenario where Pavelec would serve as an experienced, lower cost No. 2 behind the anointed No. 1, Connor Hellebuyck, doesn’t seem completely far-fetched.

Pavelec told the Free Press he’s not thinking about next year, but did admit “I’m gonna be a free agent, I guess, for the first time.”

Head coach Paul Maurice was also vague about the future, but slightly more optimistic.

“Everything is possible,” Maurice explained. “There’s so much that’s transpired, there’s so much good for Ondrej to look forward to — that will be taken care of at that time.”

Maurice added that getting back into the NHL, and winning games, was the “start to the possibilities” for Pavelec’s future.

Look, there’s no denying Pavelec hasn’t been good and, accordingly, faced a ton of heat from fans and media over the last few seasons. But a significant chunk of that was fueled by his five-year, $19.5 million contract — a deal that was came under scrutiny the moment it was signed. As each year passed, the contract looked worse and worse, and things reached a fever pitch back in October, when Pavelec passed through waivers unclaimed and landed in the minors.

The contract expires in July and, without that financial albatross, the narrative around Pavelec changes. Especially if he puts together a decent run over the final three months of this season.

And this is why the aforementioned bring-him-back-on-the-cheap idea was floated. There’s little chance the Jets re-enter next season with the Hellebuyck-Hutchinson tandem, or putting Hellebuyck in tandem with another young, inexperienced guy.

The problem, though, would be location.

While it’s possible Pavelec will emerge as a inexpensive, useful veteran backup, there could be too much history for it to happen in Winnipeg.

No buyer’s remorse for Panthers after giving Yandle big money

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 07: Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers and Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning fight for the puck during a game  at BB&T Center on November 7, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers may be one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, but there’s no buyer’s remorse after trading for Keith Yandle and giving the puck-moving defenseman a seven-year, $44.5 million contract.

“He’s fit in terrific,” Panthers GM and interim coach Tom Rowe said Sunday, per the Sun-Sentinel. “He’s such a positive influence on our young guys and in our locker room in general. We targeted him as our No. 1 free-agent signing [because we] thought he’d really complement our forwards. We had figured if he could get the puck up to them on the rush and create more offense, that’s what we’re looking for. He’s on target with what we thought he could do.”

Yandle, 30, has three goals and 20 assists in 48 games. His 23 points are the fifth most on his team — a team that’s been ravaged by injuries to key forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad.

Read more: Rowe says no timeline on Barkov, who could be out a while longer

Tonight in Arizona, Florida finishes up a four-game road trip against Yandle’s first NHL team, the Coyotes.

For the Panthers, it’s a prime opportunity to pick up two points — something they failed to do in the first three games of their trip. The only point they gained was in Edmonton, where they lost in overtime. They lost in regulation to Calgary and Vancouver.

Suffice to say, the Panthers really need to start stringing some wins together. Otherwise, the first year of Yandle’s big contract will pass by without getting to use him in the playoffs, and they’ll surely have some regrets about that.

Allen’s mental reset continues, as Blues will start Hutton in Pittsburgh

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is slow to get up after giving up a goal to Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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St. Louis is giving Jake Allen more time to sort out his struggles.

Today, the club announced backup Carter Hutton will start tomorrow in Pittsburgh, while Pheonix Copley — the AHL call-up that allowed five goals in Saturdays’ loss in Winnipeg — will serve as the No. 2.

Allen, who didn’t even travel to Winnipeg so he could ‘reset’ mentally, will start on Thursday in Minnesota, which will be St. Louis’ last game prior to the All-Star break. Copley will again serve as the backup.

The decision to go back to Allen comes after a horrific stretch in which he was yanked from three straight games, and four of his past six.

It is noteworthy, though, that Allen isn’t getting the Pittsburgh game. Part of that could be the opponent — the Pens are a force offensively, and lead the NHL in goals per game — but it could also be that Allen needs additional time to sort out his issues.

Whatever the case, the plan may have changed. In explaining why he left Allen behind while the team went to Winnipeg, Blues GM Doug Armstrong suggested Allen could get right back in.

“I think taking a day way, getting a total reset — he could reset traveling with the team, but I wanted a complete reset — and then we come back on Sunday, he’s back in the net and he’s ready to go,” Armstrong said, per the Post-Dispatch. “To me, it’s not a huge story; he’s going to take a day to get a reset with his family — he just had a young baby — but the play needs to improve and I want to give him a fresh start.”

Allen’s struggles this year are well-documented (see here, here, here and here). Per the Post-Dispatch, his .897 save percentage ranks 43rd among 47 goalies who have appeared in 14 or more games this season.