By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 12:05 AM
For 40 minutes, everything appeared on course for the Washington Capitals to snap out of a two-game slump that saw them struggle to finish on a multitude of scoring chances.
But the three-goal edge they carried into the third period Monday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center slipped away with Washington's focus in the final frame.
The Capitals allowed the Maple Leafs, whom they had dominated at the start of the contest, to outwork them in the third, force overtime and go on to a 5-4 shootout victory on a goal by Mikhail Grabovski. It was Washington's third straight loss and sixth in the past 10 games.
The manner in which the Capitals seemed to watch as Toronto worked its way back into the contest during the third period, failing to check the Maple Leafs as they entered the Washington zone or eliminate gaps once they set up, made the defeat sting even more.
"We quit playing in our zone," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of his team relinquishing three goals in the final period for the third time this season. "I think they were mentally thinking that we wanted to play safe and just get it out, but you've got to continue to play and play hard. When you've got a chance to come out on forecheck you can't just continue to let a team come into our zone all night long. And when they were in our zone our positioning by both defensemen and forwards was really bad."
Washington also was hit with another injury blow to its defense as Jeff Schultz suffered a fractured thumb blocking a shot by Toronto's Luke Schenn on a penalty kill late in the second period and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
Comebacks by the Maple Leafs are not new to Washington this season. In the team's first meeting on Nov. 3, the Capitals gave up a three-goal edge before squeaking out a 5-4 shootout win themselves.
Monday, when Grabovski found open ice in the slot with just more than four minutes gone in the third period for a goal that cut Washington's lead to 4-2, shades of that game seemed to eclipse the play at Verizon Center.
The Capitals lacked the dedication to playing pucks deep and cycling in the Toronto zone while their counterparts progressed in the opposite direction.
Failure to clear the defensive zone led to a tally by Tim Brent that made it 4-3 with 2 minutes 23 seconds remaining in regulation. Another breakdown 59 seconds later resulted in Clarke MacArthur standing alone to the right side of Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 24 saves, for an easy tally to tie the contest and force overtime.
"We made some bad mistakes that resulted in goals," said Tom Poti, who recorded three assists after missing the past two games with a groin strain. "We did it to ourselves. We made some bad clearing attempts and some bad plays. We got away from doing what got us the lead, getting pucks deep and working down low."
By overtime, the Capitals bore little resemblance to the team that came out determined to solve its problems from the two prior losses. Washington had little trouble finishing its scoring chances and drove toward the Toronto net and goaltender Jonas Gustavsson regularly, searching for rebounds and redirections that would lead directly to a pair of goals against the Maple Leafs.
In his first game since being recalled from the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears, and eager to set a tone, center Mathieu Perreault provided the Capitals with a 1-0 lead 2:55 into the frame when he tipped a shot by Poti from the point into the cage. After MacArthur tied the score at 11:47 of the period, Mike Knuble regained Washington's lead on the power play by corralling his own rebound for a second-chance shot that beat Gustavsson glove side.
Toronto had the better shifts to start the second and gave Neuvirth early work in the frame, but a strong effort down low in the Maple Leafs' zone by the Capitals' second line increased the advantage.
Alexander Semin played a game of keep-away against the Toronto defensemen, then sent the puck to Brooks Laich, who set up Perreault with plenty of time for the center to pick his shot - top left corner - on Gustavsson. It marked Perreault's first career two-goal game.
"He brought great energy [Monday], like we thought," Boudreau said of Perreault.
"He made plays, like we thought. If some of the other forwards had played with as much energy as him, we wouldn't have been in the situation we were in."
Alex Ovechkin added his second goal in as many games, after tying a career-long goal-scoring drought of nine games to make it 4-1 with more than six minutes remaining in the second period.
"I don't know what happened [in] the last 10 minutes," Ovechkin said. "It started with our line when Grabovski scored. . . . A 4-to-1 lead after two periods is pretty big. Losing a game like this is pretty bad for us."