By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:08 AM
BOSTON - Two weeks ago, if the Washington Capitals would have outshot an opponent 26-2 in the third period they'd likely have more to show for it than just a single goal. But now, mired in their longest losing streak since the 2006-07 season, nothing can be counted on the same way.
Despite that onslaught of chances in the final frame on Saturday night, and despite that familiar old feeling among Capitals players that they could erase their opponents' lead as easily as a dry-erase board, Washington couldn't climb out of a three-goal deficit. Tim Thomas made 39 saves, including 25 in the concluding 20 minutes, to boost the Boston Bruins over the struggling Capitals, 3-2, at TD Garden.
The Capitals' eighth straight loss dropped them from first place in the Southeast Division standings for the first time since April 2008. The Atlanta Thrashers (41 points) now occupy that spot, having leapfrogged Washington (40 points) by virtue of a 7-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. The Tampa Bay Lightning (40 points) also won, 3-1 over Buffalo, leaving the Capitals in third place.
"When we got that second goal it kind of felt like it used to on the bench. We felt like we were going to win no matter what and it didn't work out," said Matt Bradley, who recorded his third goal of the season for Washington's first tally. "They're too good of a team to give them a 3-0 lead. . . . We played great for 40 minutes, but it's a 60-minute game and it just wasn't good enough."
As they prepared for the final meeting between the teams in the regular season, players in both camps talked about the importance of a fast start. Only Boston heeded its own advice. The Capitals were overeager, overplaying both the puck and their opponent at times, allowing the Bruins to hold them in their own zone.
A seemingly harmless shot by Patrice Bergeron from the right faceoff circle would prove to be anything but as it slipped past Michal Neuvirth for a 1-0 Boston lead 3 minutes 27 seconds into the contest.
The extreme territorial advantage held by the Bruins prevented Washington from taking a shot on Thomas until close to eight minutes had elapsed in the game. Almost immediately after the Capitals' first shot, Andrew Ference gave the Bruins a two-goal cushion when a shot from the point eluded a screened Neuvirth.
When a third tally late in the opening frame by Blake Wheeler made it 3-0 Boston, the Capitals appeared fragile and on the verge of another meltdown. The biggest positive to come out of yet another loss, though, was that this time Washington didn't collapse.
"It would have been easy in our situation for us to just say, 'Pfft, there you go,' but they worked their [rear end] off the last two periods," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, whose team travels to face Ottawa on Sunday. "Sometimes you're sitting there and things aren't going well and you're just wishing you could get a break. We haven't been getting them but we'll just persevere and move on."
By giving the Bruins a 20-minute head start, though, the Capitals wouldn't need to simply solve Thomas, but beat him at least four times to escape with a victory. Finding ways to foil Thomas hasn't been an easy feat for the Capitals this year. In the teams' first three meetings he stopped all but five of the 100 shots Washington fired against him. He finished Saturday's contest having thwarted all but seven of 141 shots by the Capitals this regular season.
The Capitals came out with more energy and gumption in the second.They got on the board with Bradley's goal on an awkward angle shot that hit the inside of the left post and went into the net to make it 3-1. The tally gave Washington life with more than half the game remaining, but despite numerous scoring chances and a power play the Capitals would end the second still trailing by a pair.
The sharp turnaround from the first to the second was the product of a reality check in between periods.
"Just don't talk about it, just go out and do it," Eric Fehr said of the message during the first intermission. "We've been talking about how we're going to regroup the last six or seven games and we haven't done it. We just wanted to show what we can do on the ice."
Washington took even greater control in the third, peppering Thomas with shots. But regardless of chaos in front or point-blank rebound chances, the former Vezina Trophy winner continued to make saves. It wasn't until a shot from the point by Karl Alzner deflected off a Bruins defender and past Thomas made it 3-2 and gave the Capitals continued hope for a rally.
With more than five minutes remaining at the time of Alzner's goal, there was hope, but Thomas staved off all final chances - including one by Alex Ovechkin with 11 seconds left.
"We've had two decent games in a row and we're getting close" to breaking the slump, Alzner said. "It's beginning to feel a little better, a little more uppity in the dressing room. We need to get our swagger back, the swagger the Capitals have had the last couple of years."