By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; D01
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, this is the time of year when the Washington Capitals are supposed to be refining their game in preparation for a potentially deep run in the playoffs. Instead, they're struggling with slow starts, ill-timed penalties and, in the assessment of Coach Bruce Boudreau, "iffy" goaltending.
They were guilty of all three Tuesday against the surging Ottawa Senators, who received a power-play goal from Alex Kovalev with 19 seconds remaining in overtime to send the Capitals to their third straight loss, 5-4, at Verizon Center.
"We played great in the second and third," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "Maybe we are not ready for the first period. We have to. I remember the playoffs last year [and] we weren't ready the first two games. We have to get ready now and play a good 60 minutes. We haven't played a good 60 minutes in a while."
Backstrom was in the penalty box for tripping when the Russian winger scored the decisive goal.
"I was going for the puck," Backstrom said. "It happens and they scored. I was a little bit surprised" by the call.
In addition to a stretch of inconsistent performances, the Capitals had more injury concerns after the game. Rookie defenseman John Carlson left the bench in the second period with an "upper body injury," further thinning a lineup that was already without Brooks Laich (face injury) and others.
"He got a little upper body banged," Boudreau said. "But I'm told he should be ready by Thursday."
Washington's main problems, though, began long before Carlson got hurt and Backstrom took out Kovalev's skates with his stick in the extra session. It started in the first period, which saw the Capitals fall behind 3-1, and ended with them finishing with 21 shots on goal, their lowest total since November 2008.
"We didn't come out ready to play and it hurt us in the end," defenseman Tom Poti said.
Center David Steckel added, "We got better as the game went on, but it's not good enough in the first."
Mathieu Perreault scored his second goal in as many games since being recalled from the Hershey Bears as an emergency injury replacement. The goal came 24 seconds into the third period and gave the Capitals their first lead, 4-3.
That edge didn't last long, however. With Perreault in the penalty box for interference, Jason Spezza scored his second goal of the night -- and Ottawa's second on the power play -- less than five minutes later to knot the score, 4-4. Spezza's shot, taken from the goal line, hit José Theodore (26 saves) before entering the net.
"Well, I don't like five goals against," Boudreau said, adding that rookie Semyon Varlamov will be in net on Thursday against Atlanta as originally planned. "This has happened twice in a row and we've got to get better. There were four pretty iffy goals out there tonight."
The Senators outshot the hosts, 13-4, in the first period to extend the Capitals' first-period woes. In the past two games, the Capitals have been outshot by a combined 26-8 and outscored, 7-1, in the opening 20 minutes. Going back three games, they have been outscored, 9-1.
"We talked about it," winger Quintin Laing said. "Bruce talked about it. For our team to manage only four shots is unacceptable."
Tuesday's opening period was every bit as ugly as Sunday's 5-3 loss to Calgary, which began with the Capitals spotting the Flames a 4-0 lead. One difference this time, however, was that the home team wasn't booed off the ice. The other difference? This time, the Caps came roaring back.
At 12:04 of the second period, Alexander Semin scored his second goal of the night to cut the deficit to 3-2. Backstrom made a long pass to Alex Ovechkin, setting up a 2 on 1. Ovechkin fumbled the pass, but gained control and threaded a pass through Brian Lee to Semin, who beat Brian Elliott with a backhander.
About 30 seconds later, Theodore made a splendid stop on Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson from point blank range. Then, later on that shift, Poti teed up a one-timer for Mike Green, who rifled a shot off Elliott's glove and into the net to knot the score at 3.
When Perreault scored the go-ahead goal seconds into the third period, the arena erupted and it appeared the Capitals were on their way to another come-from-behind victory, sparked by their league-leading offense. But the night ended with them lamenting another inconsistent effort.
When asked if he is concerned about his team's struggles ahead of the playoffs for the second straight year -- the Capitals were 10-6-3 in March and April last season -- Boudreau got defensive.
"That was a hard-fought game," he said. "That wasn't a go-through-the-motions type game, let's get the season over with. You had two teams wanting it. So I don't think our level of play will be dropping like last year."
Capitals notes: Laich (face), Scott Walker (knee), Brendan Morrison (lower body) and Boyd Gordon (back) were out. Laich has been medically cleared, according to Boudreau, and could return Thursday. . . . Tyler Sloan and John Erskine were healthy scratches on defense. . . . Anton Volchenkov, the Senators' defenseman normally assigned to shut down Ovechkin, was sidelined with an upper body injury.