Washington posted its fifth straight win over teams with losing records and picked up a point for the fifth consecutive game. It remained two points in front of second-place Tampa Bay in the Southeast.
Despite the win, Cassidy felt top-line players like Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang did not show up. And as the game wore on, he stripped them of time on the power play, giving it to Halpern and his linemates.
“It was a frustrating game, but you coach your way through it and hope the guys that want to play, play their way through it,” Cassidy said. “We had some guys that really battled hard and we had some guys that never got off the bus. Fortunately, we won the hockey game. And at this time of year, you take the two points any way that you can get them.
“Halpern’s line was out on the power play because the Lang unit didn’t want to work for second pucks on the first four or five power plays. Buffalo was aggressive and it isn’t like we haven’t seen aggressive kills before. We talk about using the back of the net and they just looked disinterested.”
Halpern scored just once in his previous seven contests but began his first two-goal game since March 28, 2001 with 32 seconds remaining in the first period. His shot from above the right faceoff circle deflected off the glove of goaltender Martin Biron.
“I haven’t been dazzling anyone this year with finding the net,” Halpern admitted. “It’s just something about trying to get pucks to the net. We got a little bit of power-play time tonight, so it was nice to take advantage of it. It’s not a great win, but an ugly way to dig it out this time of year. We’ll take it any way we can get it.”
Halpern capped his sixth career two-goal game just over two minutes after rookie Ales Kotalik’s power-play tally forged a 1-1 tie at 16:44 of the second period.
Working along the left boards, Halpern took a pass from defenseman Sergei Gonchar and fired a quick wrist shot past Biron, who appeared to be screened by Mike Grier. It was Washington’s second power-play goal in 10 games.
“I was a little surprised they did go in,” Halpern said. “But I know on the second goal, at least, both Kono (Steve Konowalchuk) and Grierser were putting such good screens in front of the net. I was hoping more for a rebound and let those guys dig it out. The puck had eyes and it went in.”
Kolzig was beaten by Kotalik off a give-and-go with Miroslav Satan but made several key stops throughout.
The former Vezina Trophy winner came up with 12 saves in the first period, eight in the second and 15 in the third. Among the third-period stops was a key save on defenseman Dmitri Kalinin’s late tough-angle shot.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been on a roll,” Kolzig said. “It didn’t look like it tonight, but we’ve really buckled down tonight and played some good hockey. I don’t know what the problem was tonight, whether it was just us being complacent. That was no inidication of how we’ve been playing lately.
“It’s nice to win the division, but right now we have to worry about good hockey. We’re in a pretty good position as far as the playoffs go, we’re 10 points up on the Rangers. That gives us a little cushion to start playing our own game. If we keep playing this way, we’ll be out of the first round real quick.”
Biron stopped 21 shots for the Sabres, who fell to 4-9-1-4 in the last 18 contests. It was their 18th one-goal defeat of the season.
“It really was a team that I didn’t think was there,” Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. “Ninety percent of the game was in the Washington end and they end up walking out with a 2-1 win. It was tough. You can’t fault our team effort. I think they gave a good effort.”