Everyone has days when the alarm clock malfunctions, the toast is burned, the car won't start. From time to time, everyone realizes today just isn't the day. The Washington Capitals must have felt that way tonight at Air Canada Centre as the Toronto Maple Leafs began buzzing around them as soon as the puck was dropped.

The Capitals were sluggish--playing their fourth game in six nights--and, though their play improved in the latter periods, they could not mount any sustained attack against one of the league's better defensive teams, falling 3-1. The loss dropped the Capitals below the .500 mark (9-10-4) just one game after they finally reached it. They fell to 3-7-1 on the road while the Maple Leafs notched their 11th win at home--tops in the NHL. Washington's power play was awful. Their second line of Steve Konowalchuk, Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik, usually the team's best, struggled. Things just wouldn't click.

"That's what you're going to have when you play four games in six nights and three of them are on the road," Coach Ron Wilson said. "We generally played a pretty strong road game, but a couple of guys didn't show up tonight, and it cost us big time."

It didn't seem possible that the Capitals could equal Saturday's awful first-period effort against the New York Islanders, but they came pretty close. Their offense was nonexistent in the period. They lacked crispness. They looked lethargic. The Maple Leafs nearly scored on the opening shift and used their speed to slice through Washington's defense.

The Capitals could not complete a sharp breakout pass; they struggled to clear the zone. Snipers Mats Sundin and Sergei Berezin were stoned by goaltender Olaf Kolzig. They kept him busy and Toronto's little-used fourth line beat him. The Capitals were caught up ice, and the Maple Leafs began a quick transition the other way. Gifted defenseman Tomas Kaberle led the rush and rookie Adam Mair, recalled this afternoon when a rash of injuries struck, finished the two-on-one 11 minutes 36 seconds into the game. The Capitals had to be thankful it wasn't much worse.

Yet they hung in the game and began to make strides in the second period. With one decent power play, they might have managed to earn a standings point. Instead they fumbled away four chances at the man advantage--three in the second period alone. They could not complete a single pass. Pucks hit skates, arms, legs--everything but a teammate's stick. Nothing worked. It was ugly.

They spent more time in their own zone than in Toronto's, unable to set up and establish pressure. They turned the puck over consistently. Four Maple Leafs were dominating five Capitals. By the end of the second period, Wilson was using his third line on the power play, yanking many of his skill guys from the units.

"I liked all phases of our game except the power play," Wilson said. "And it cost us. We weren't effective, and when we go on the power play, whatever momentum we were getting was killed. We didn't work hard enough on the power play.

"We were panicky and jittery and didn't force them to make a mistake by wearing them down. We made it easy for them. . . . Our second line was minus-2 and not into the game, and I won't hesitate with people I don't think are working hard enough. I'm going to make changes."

The Capitals did, however, continue to thrive on the penalty kill. They have killed off 74 of 76 chances over the last 18 games and managed to tie the game tonight while playing a man short. James Black led the rush and pulled up at the blue line, waiting for help. In a few seconds Washington had a three-on-one, with defenseman Calle Johansson alertly heading up ice. His initial shot was blocked, but he fed Black, still alone in front. Black sent the puck across the crease, and rookie Jeff Halpern finished it beautifully, lofting a spinning backhanded shot while falling, sending the puck over a sprawled Curtis Joseph 11 minutes into the second period.

"I just tried to lift it and get it upstairs," Halpern said of his third NHL goal. "I didn't even realize I had the whole net there. At the time, it was great. We started getting going, and I think that we had some momentum at that point."

Two minutes later, all of that changed. Toronto quickly led again. The Maple Leafs got the puck back to the point after a scramble in front of Kolzig, and when it shot back in from the point, Yanic Perreault poked it in. The Capitals generated more offense in the third period, but the chances still were largely sporadic. When they got close, Joseph, one of the top goalies in the world, made the clutch save. Steve Thomas put the game away with an empty-net goal, ending the Capitals' frustration with about 20 seconds left. It just wasn't their night.

Capitals Notes: Forwards Joe Sacco (bruised leg) and Chris Simon (neck sprain) missed tonight's game, but Wilson said he expects both to play Thursday. Defenseman Joe Reekie (bruised foot) is out indefinitely. . . . The Capitals will hold an organizational scouting meeting today in Toronto, the first step in formulating a list for June's amateur draft. . . . Wilson let long-shot rookie Glen Metropolit start the game with the first line--the first time the Toronto native played an NHL game in his home town.