WASHINGTON -- Alex Ovechkin skated off the ice, surprised that a hard shoulder check warranted a game misconduct. The Washington Capitals, tired of surrendering late leads with lackluster play, turned his absence into a rallying point.
"You lose the most prolific scorer on the planet Earth, which is tough," said Washington defenseman Brian Pothier. "But you have to kill a 5-minute penalty. As Ovie's skating off the ice, we're telling him, 'We've got this one for you.' He does so much for our team. Every night, he bails us out. We could sure do it for him."
Eric Fehr also scored for the Capitals, who had lost four of five. Varlamov, who had two shutouts in the playoffs last spring against the New York Rangers, wasn't severely tested until the third period, when Ovechkin's absence put Washington at a decided disadvantage.
"The defense played great, as well as our forwards," Varlamov said through a translator. "Toward the end of the game, we just held back. We needed to."
After watching Varlamov make rookie mistakes deep in previous games, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau sensed a change in the 21-year-old goalie.
"Varly was solid," Boudreau said. "It was like he was saying, 'I'm not going to let this happen to me again in the third period.' "
Ovechkin drew a major for boarding and a game misconduct 3:38 into the third period when he ran Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta into the boards with his shoulder opposite the benches. It was the second career ejection for Ovechkin, and both have come against Buffalo at Verizon Center. The other was Dec. 2, 2006, when he checked Daniel Briere from behind.
"I just go take a hit and [Kaleta] just fell into the boards. ... Max, it's got to be 2 minutes," Ovechkin said.
A league official told ESPN.com on Wednesday night that Ovechkin would not receive an automatic one-game suspension as a result of the ejection; but if the Caps star receives another ejection within the next 41 games, then the one-game suspension will be automatic.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff lamented his team's inability to seize momentum on the power play after the call on Ovechkin.
"We didn't get organized. We got set up once ... and made a couple of bad passes," Ruff said. "And the couple of bad passes led to no zone time."
Buffalo has lost four straight.
"As a team, we're having a tough time finding the back of the net," said Buffalo's Jason Pominville. "That's when you have to dig deeper and get those ugly goals and just outwork them around the crease. I just don't think we're doing a good enough job at it so far."
With six players from their opening-night lineup missing due to injury, the Capitals came up with a strong start-to-finish effort after losing leads in their last two games, both overtime losses. The defense limited high-percentage shots on Varlamov and clogged passing lanes to frustrate Buffalo.
Ovechkin opened the scoring with his team-high 17th goal. Ovechkin made an end-to-end dash, using defenseman Tyler Myers as a screen and beating Ryan Miller on a wrister from the right circle 6:24 into the game. It was Ovechkin's third goal in five games after missing six games because of an upper-body strain.
After Ovechkin was banished, Washington got a break when the Sabres' Craig Rivet was whistled for a tripping minor, creating a 4-on-4 skating situation. The Capitals eventually killed off the power play to preserve the one-goal lead, and got through another Buffalo man advantage after Mike Green was penalized for delay of the game
Fehr gave them some breathing room with 6:22 left in regulation, banging home a centering pass from Brendan Morrison from behind the net.
Green assisted on Fehr's goal and has points in eight straight games. ... A moment of silence was observed before the game in memory of Abe Pollin, who owned the Capitals from 1974 to 1999. Pollin died Tuesday at the age of 85 from a rare brain disease. Funeral services will be held Friday in Washington and a public memorial service is scheduled for Dec. 8 at Verizon Center, which Pollin used his own money to build. ... Washington recalled D Karl Alzner from AHL Hershey. Capitals D Milan Jurcina was back in the lineup after missing six games because of a a lower-body injury. ... Buffalo RW Mike Grier returned after missing five games with a groin injury.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.