As Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee left an arena in Guelph, Ontario, tonight having scouted another junior hockey game, his team was already falling behind, en route to a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at Arrowhead Pond. McPhee, who will return from an NHL-mandated one-month suspension Monday, has yet to witness the Capitals play this season. He has yet to experience their troubles firsthand.
McPhee, who was reprimanded for a physical altercation following a preseason game, will get a one-year contract extension from the club next week, sources said, which coincides with the Capitals' return from their woeful West Coast trip. Even if they manage to end it with a victory Sunday in San Jose, it's unlikely McPhee will return to MCI Center a happy fellow.
The Capitals (2-5-2) are winless in five games (0-4-1); their longest stretch last season -- when they sank to the bottom of the conference -- was six games. They have been outscored 23-9 in that span. Only Tampa Bay is allowing more goals per game. Eight regulars have yet to score a goal. The entire defense has combined for two goals (both by Calle Johansson); eight NHL defensemen entered play tonight with at least two goals.
"I don't think the game was at all indicative of the score," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said, "but their big guns scored when they got an opportunity. They got the matchups they wanted and we couldn't get away from it."
Tonight's loss marked the fifth straight game the Capitals were held to two goals or fewer. They fully realized the import of this game. They faced a team that pounded them, 7-1, last week. They were coming off a rough 5-2 loss Tuesday in Los Angeles, when they blew another two-goal lead. This was a chance to send a message to their new owners, the coaching staff and McPhee. They managed a better effort, but the same results.
They ended up losing the game in the first period, falling behind 3-0 despite playing their best and most consistent game of the trip. They came out firing and created rushes. They got the puck to the net and had the Ducks scrambling around the crease. They did not, however, put it in until it was too late.
Anaheim opened the scoring about five minutes in. Defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky shot from the point, and Paul Kariya (two goals), who triggered the play at the blue line, pounded a one-timer into the open side of the net.
The Capitals strung together several strong shifts after that, including a dominant performance by the fourth line. But Anaheim darted back the other way and Teemu Selanne smashed a shot over goalie Olaf Kolzig's shoulder, making it 2-0 less than 13 minutes in.
The Ducks' top line had burned the Capitals again, after torching Washington for nine points last week. It wasn't done. Kariya (points in five straight games) and Selanne (points in six straight) set up Tverdovsky's shot through a screen with 34 seconds left. Kariya's second goal made it 5-2 in the third period. He and Selanne each had four points tonight.
"In the first period, they go up 3-0 and it's three defensive breakdowns," the Capitals' Brendan Witt said. "We keep getting away from Ron's system and we keep paying for it."
But unlike in recent games, the Capitals never rolled over. Peter Bondra, among league leaders with eight goals, cut the lead to 3-1, 81 seconds into the second period. The penalty killing, once worst in the NHL, is 17 for 18 in the last four games.
The Capitals even outplayed the Ducks for long stretches, then Fredrik Olausson shot from no angle. The puck struck the stick of Steve Konowalchuk (who later scored), popped off Kolzig's head and trickled in, 3 minutes 25 seconds into the third period, making it 4-1 -- a play indicative of the Capitals' luck, a play that epitomized this season.
Capitals Notes: Forward Yogi Svejkovsky missed the game with a bruised shoulder and was replaced by Ulf Dahlen. Defenseman Ken Klee missed his first game (healthy scratch) and was replaced by Jamie Huscroft. . . . Joe Sacco played his 500th NHL game; Gonchar played his 300th. . . . Center Jan Bulis's third-period assist gave him eight points in nine games, second on the team.