WASHINGTON - It's no secret that Alex Ovechkin is the straw that stirs the Washington Capitals' drink, and on Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres he showed why.
Ovechkin's power-play goal 5:11 into the third period stood up as the game-winner as the Capitals held on to give first-year coach Adam Oates his first victory behind the bench with a 3-2 win in front of a soldout crowd at Verizon Center.
"I would have hoped it would come sooner," Oates said of his first win. "But I'm glad."
The Capitals improved to 1-3-1 with the win, while the Sabres dropped to 2-3-0.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said he would have liked to see his team create more traffic in front of Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who recorded 22 saves.
"As a team, we just have to do a better job in front of their net," Ruff said. "We're not getting enough bodies there."
With Sabres defenseman Alexander Sulzer in the penalty box for delay of game, Ovechkin set up in his familiar spot in the left circle and drilled a pass from Mike Green past goaltender Ryan Miller. The goal snapped Ovechkin's longest scoring drought to open a season -- four games -- and gave the Capitals a 3-1 lead.
"It was tough to give Ovechkin one in the third period and spot them another goal," Miller said. "I think my read could have been a little bit better."
The Sabres rallied to make it 3-2 on a goal by Marcus Foligno with 9:47 remaining, but Neuvirth (22 saves) closed the door the rest of the way to give the Caps the win.
Ovechkin had a chance to seal the win with about 30 seconds remaining, but his shot toward the empty net sailed wide of the mark.
"To be honest with you I was like, 'OK, empty net, easy goal,'" Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin played with a variety of linemates in the opening four games of the season -- all losses -- but seemed to find his groove when he was reunited with center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing Troy Brouwer.
He finished the game with one goal on five shots and dished out three hits. The Caps are now 1-0-0 when Ovechkin scores a goal and 0-3-1 when he doesn't.
"He's one of our marquee guys," Oates said. "He has to play well. Every team's star players has to play well. They do. And no exception here."
The Capitals carried a 2-1 lead into the third period thanks to a rare goal by defenseman John Erskine. The rugged blue liner wristed a long shot from just inside the blue line that appeared to change direction when it hit Sabres forward Cody Hodgson and found its way behind Miller, who was making his fourth start in five games.
The goal was Erskine's 12th in 426 career games and his first since April 5, 2011.
"It just goes to show that if you throw the puck at the net anything can happen," Erskine said. "Whenever I score, the boys stand up and give a cheer."
In the first period, the Sabres grabbed an early lead for the fourth time in five games when Ennis scored his first goal of the season at the 9:34 mark of the opening period. Ennis was the trailer on an offensive rush led by Drew Stafford and Steve Ott. A burst of speed gave him a step on Joey Crab, allowing him to slide a backhander between the pads of Neuvirth, who was getting his third straight start.
The Capitals tied the score at the 16:02 mark on Joel Ward's third goal of the season. Ward parked himself in the low slot and was in perfect position to drill Jason Chimera's bad-angle rebound past Miller. With his third goal, Ward already is halfway to his goal total of six last season under head coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter.
Notes: The Sabres were without leading scorer Thomas Vanek, who suffered a muscle strain against the Carolina Hurricanes Friday night. Vanek had nine points (three goals, six assists) in his first four games this season, the fastest to nine points in team history. ... Through four games, Vanek, Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson had combined for 20 of the Sabres' 31 points. ... Capitals forward Marcus Johanssson, who finished tied for third on the club with 46 points last season, was a healthy scratch. ... The Capitals return to action Tuesday night when they visit the Ottawa Senators. ... The Sabres return home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.