Zubrus was placed on injured reserve on December 3 and was expected to miss up to six weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a bone spur from his right hand. But he was back early and recorded just his second multi-point game of the season.
“Coach told me exactly how it was going to be, starting on the fourth line,” Zubrus said. “He talked to me before the game and said, ‘We’ll see how it goes and I’ll increase your ice time and see how you feel.’ He did that and I felt good. It seemed like the last 40 minutes, we played really well.”
Jagr broke a 2-2 deadlock 4 1/2 minutes into the third with his team-leading 18th goal and Ciernik doubled the Capitals’ lead with 8:24 to play.
Just 20 seconds later, however, Vaclav Varada pulled Buffalo within 4-3 and set up a tense finish.
“I wasn’t actually worried, we weren’t giving up much,” Capitals coach Butch Cassidy said. “We were pretty good, we were moving the puck out of trouble. Taking the penalty, you’re always worried because our penalty-kill has struggled. But we just went out and killed it. With the empty net, I don’t think they ever really threatened.”
Mike Grier scored his 10th goal for the Capitals, who earned at least a point for the seventh consecutive game (5-0-1-1).
“He was a big lift for us, a big spark,” Grier said of Zubrus. “He was fresh legs. He played great for us tonight. I wasn’t really surprised. We’ve seen him in practice the last few days and he’s been skating well. He’s a boost and someone we really need.”
“Last year, everyone here prided themselves on us having a better second half,” said Buffalo’s Martin Biron, who made 24 saves. “We got ourselves back in the playoff picture. We gotta do the same thing and get back in it and have a good second half.”
Zubrus actually has scored in the last four games in which he has played. After failing to record a goal in his first 18 contests, he produced three goals and an assist in three games before undergoing surgery.
“Right before the injury, I played a little bit on the right side again, and that’s probably the place where I feel the most comfortable, Zubrus said. “Coach put me out there and gave me my spot back and it worked out well. Then I got hurt, but I feel good now.”
Zubrus scored on the Capitals’ first shot 3:43 into the contest. Defenseman Ken Klee forced a turnover in the neutral zone and fed Zubrus, who beat Biron from the left faceoff circle.
“You never know, you could give up a goal on the first shot and then shut the door on the rest,” Biron said. “Guy comes down and takes the shot, tips off a stick and goes top shelf. … It’s a tough one. It has to find your body with a quick change and reaction and you have to have it hit your body. But you have to bounce back.”
“Ultimately, we have got to get better goaltending,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “You need your goaltender to be a star and sometimes not even a star. You just can’t let the lame ducks go in. We can’t support that.”
Washington’s recent success has coincided with the return of another player from injury. Goalie Olaf Kolzig, who stopped 18 shots, is 5-0-1 with a shutout since coming off injured reserve on December 16. The 2000 Vezina Trophy winner, he missed four games due to a strained groin.
The Capitals improved to 5-2-1-1 since a 4-3 loss to Buffalo on December 7.