By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009
TORONTO -- Saturday got off to an unsettling start for the Washington Capitals -- and it didn't get any better.
The Capitals arrived almost 12 hours late because of problems with their charter plane, then buckled beneath a sloppy defense and suspect goaltending in a 6-3 to the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs that an exasperated Coach Bruce Boudreau called "a complete team letdown."
"You get a 2-0 lead real early, it looks easy and you let up," Boudreau said. "We had a couple more chances that we were way too casual on. And then all of a sudden they get one, then they get two, and now they're sitting over there like, 'Hey, boys, let's go.' "
One of the turning points arrived late in the game with the Capitals trailing 4-3 and their top-ranked power play on the prowl. But instead of pulling even, Lee Stempniak scored short-handed to clinch the Leafs' third victory in four games before a capacity crowd at Air Canada Centre.
Stempniak finished off Washington with a breakaway goal that began when Matt Stajan picked off an errant pass by Nicklas Backstrom (two goals) at the offensive blue line. Stempniak then outskated Ovechkin to the net before he deked Michal Neuvith, who, in his second start this season, had an admittedly "tough night."
"I was feeling good after the first period, but I let in the first goal," said Neuvirth, who made 30 saves. "That was kind of a bad bounce for me, and that turned everything around. I don't want to make any excuses, but no pregame skate . . . so it was tough. I have to put it behind me."
In the past 48 hours, the NHL-leading Capitals have squeaked by the 30th-place Hurricanes in overtime and have been defeated by 29th-place Leafs, yielding a total of nine goals in the process.
"I didn't think we got great goaltending here tonight," Boudreau said. "The [Phil] Kessel goal wasn't good. There was a few of them."
"Outside of Shaone Morrisonn and Tom Poti, all of our defense struggled tonight," he added. "So, I guess, basically, it was a complete team letdown."
At the other end of the ice, Vesa Toskala (34 saves) rebounded from yielding goals to Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom in the opening 5 minutes 15 seconds. Although Backstrom's second-period strike was soft, the veteran netminder made a number of impressive glove saves to keep Toronto close early and ahead late.
"We talked on the bench that if we got that third one it would really change the game," Brooks Laich said, lamenting early missed opportunities. "But their goaltender, after allowing a couple, made some great saves, most notably on Alexander Semin. We didn't soldier on with a 2-0 lead. We stopped moving our legs and that led to bad decisions."
The defeat, the Capitals' second in three games, capped an unusual day for the team. After beating the Hurricanes, 4-3, in overtime Friday night at Verizon Center, the players drove to Dulles International Airport, where they were scheduled to take a charter flight to Toronto.
The plane, however, developed mechanical problems as it taxied to the runway -- Boudreau said the control tower reported seeing sparks coming from underneath -- and promptly returned to the gate. When it was determined that the repair would take hours, team officials sent the players home, meaning they would have to head back to airport early in the morning. As a result, the Capitals canceled their optional morning skate and finally arrived here about 11:30 a.m.
"I think [the loss] has a lot more to do with five games in [eight] nights than the travel," Boudreau said. "I don't think the travel helped. But if we want to start looking for excuses. The bed was too soft. The meal wasn't right. Those are excuses, and we don't want to use them."
Indeed, there was no excusing the Capitals' effort in the second and third periods after a strong opening 20 minutes.
Ovechkin put them ahead 1-0 with a power-play goal just two minutes into the game when he fired a one-timer from Mike Green past Toskala's blocker. Toronto was short-handed because Toskala left his crease and covered the puck inside the faceoff circle, earning a rare delay-of-game penalty.
Moments later, Brendan Morrison misfired on a odd-man break. But it didn't matter. Ovechkin and Backstrom executed a nifty give-and-go that the Swedish center finished off, banging in a crossing pass Ovechkin threaded through a crowded crease at 5:15 to stretch the Capitals' lead to 2-0.
After the Maple Leafs scored twice to tie the game, Backstrom's second goal -- a deflected dribbler that somehow eluded Toskala -- restored the Capitals' lead, but more poor play in their own end ensured that it didn't last.