By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009
Alex Ovechkin was ruled out a few hours before the opening faceoff, then Tom Poti left only seconds after it.
That was an ominous beginning to another forgettable night for the skidding Washington Capitals, who fell for the third straight game at Verizon Center to an opponent beneath them in the standings.
While the Capitals' effort was an improvement over the previous two defeats -- lopsided losses to Florida and Carolina -- it wasn't enough against the trade-depleted Toronto Maple Leafs, who escaped with a 2-1 victory despite trading away their second- and fourth-leading scorers at Wednesday's deadline and starting a waiver-wire pickup in net who had not played in the NHL in almost two months.
"We didn't finish and yet he made some great saves," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Martin Gerber, who finished with 37 saves in his Toronto debut. "We had enough chances to win two or three games."
The Capitals have had losing streaks of three games twice previously this season. But this one has a different feel, perhaps because each of the defeats has come on home ice, a place where they had been almost unbeatable. Until recently, that is. They've dropped five of their past seven games in the District, scoring one goal twice and two goals three times.
Washington still owns a comfortable 11-point lead in the Southeast Division and the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. But the slump is starting to erode the swagger the team once had.
"We're in that situation where guys are holding their sticks really tight," Boudreau said. "Guys are pressing pretty hard, and we have to get them to play the [way] that won them 40 games already."
Winger Eric Fehr added: "It's definitely tough. We lost one of our best defenders and the best goal scorer in the league. That's not exactly how we wanted it to go."
For only the fourth time in his three-plus seasons, Ovechkin missed a game, sidelined by a bruised heel on his right foot. The reigning MVP was injured when he wandered near the net during Wednesday's practice and was struck by a slap shot off the stick of assistant coach Dean Evason. Ovechkin said during last night's game that he has not had an MRI exam or X-rays and does not believe the injury is serious.
"We want to take it easy and make sure it's going to be okay," Ovechkin said between periods. The Capitals have two days until their next game, a matinee with Pittsburgh. But Ovechkin's status for that game might not be known until tomorrow.
"We're going to see," he said. "Probably. There's no swelling, but it hurts."
Ovechkin, though, wasn't the only surprise scratch. Poti tweaked his groin muscle, and the veteran defenseman returned to the locker room after a seven-second shift to start the game. Without Poti, Coach Bruce Boudreau was forced to move center Sergei Fedorov to defense, and that left the Capitals minus a forward.
Being short-handed was of no help to a club that has suddenly lost its way -- one day after receiving a vote of confidence when General Manager George McPhee chose not to make any deals at the trade deadline.
The Capitals caught a break early when the Maple Leafs, who traded forwards Dominic Moore and Nik Antropov, had an apparent goal wiped out after a review.
Jason Blake collided with José Theodore (27 saves) as he attempted to stuff the puck in with a strong move to the front of the net. Blake lost the puck, but ran over Theodore. The loose puck was backhanded off defenseman Mike Green and then fired into the net by John Mitchell.
But the goal was disallowed after a video review because of Blake's contact with Theodore. Blake, however, was not assessed a penalty.
The score remained 0-0 until the third period, which is when a pair of defensive lapses led to a pair of Toronto goals in the span of 3 minutes 42 seconds.
During a scramble caused by the Capitals' inability to get the puck out of the defensive zone, Toronto's Lee Stempniak fired a shot from behind the goal line off Theodore's pad. The puck deflected into the goal at 6:05 to put Toronto ahead 1-0.
Another scramble in the Washington zone resulted in Pavel Kubina firing a one-timer past Theodore to make it 2-0. Theodore was bumped while moving from post to post.
With about seven minutes remaining in the game, Boudreau screamed at his players as he paced the bench.
"Once we got that first goal scored against us, we started changing our game plan," winger Matt Bradley said, referring to the individual play that has dogged the team during the first three-game home losing streak under Boudreau. "Up until that point -- it wasn't our best game -- but we were pretty solid."
With Theodore on the bench, Alexander Semin scored in the final minute to extend his goal streak to five games, tying the longest of his career.
Earlier in the period, Gerber, who had not played in an NHL game since Jan. 8 as a member of the Ottawa Senators, stopped David Steckel with an outstretched stick while lying on the ice. Then moments later, Gerber thwarted a Semin breakaway with a poke check. Tomas Fleischmann, meantime, misfired on an open net.
"We're a less offensive team" without Ovechkin, Fehr said. "But I think our team is deep enough that we're able to contribute. We have guys that can step up. A couple of shots go a few inches the other way and it's a big win for us."