Maple Leafs 6, Capitals 2

If the Washington Capitals are to achieve their goal of winning the Southeast Division, they will have to resurrect a lagging offense and prove they can beat the NHL's elite. Last night they had the opportunity to do both while hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs at MCI Center and failed to do either in a 6-2 defeat.

The Capitals have dropped three of their past four games, scoring just six goals in that span, and have 20 games to play. Their division lead over Tampa Bay is down to two points, while the Lightning has played two fewer games, and this loss dropped Washington's record to 2-14-1-1 against teams ahead of them in the standings.

"We've got some guys out there who want to make a difference," Coach Bruce Cassidy said, singling out Jaromir Jagr for praise. "And we've got some guys to me who look like they don't want to make the difference. They don't want to be the guy who is put on the spot or be the go-to guy. They just want to play their game and let someone else do it, and at some point when you're a guy who is at the top of the pay scale or is considered a star on your team, you've got to step up in those games. That's not a criticism, it's a challenge."

Washington's ongoing frustration with the officiating intensified last night, but allowing four power-play goals and four third-period goals would have done in any team.

The Capitals faced a two-man disadvantage less than seven minutes in and Toronto, the victor in nine of its past 10 games, capitalized. Enforcer Tie Domi missed a wide open net, but defenseman Jason Doig could not swipe the puck away and Mikael Renberg scored easily less than nine minutes in.

The Capitals seized the second period, but their superior puck possession resulted in no power plays. Enforcer Stephen Peat, recalled from the minors yesterday morning, negated one opportunity by taking a penalty on a delayed power play, and fellow fourth-line forward Brian Sutherby put Toronto back on the power play with a roughing penalty 11 minutes 30 seconds into the period. Gary Roberts, playing his third game of the season following offseason shoulder surgery, had too much time to spin and shoot, and his first goal of the season doubled Toronto's lead.

"If we have any intention of going far in the playoffs those are things you have to persevere through," goalie Olaf Kolzig said of the officiating.

Washington generated scoring chances, but had little luck. Jagr sprung Kip Miller in the crease several times, but he failed to get one shot off and was denied by goalie Ed Belfour on a breakaway. Michael Nylander had a free run to the net but failed to take a shot. Miller was thwarted by Belfour on another breakaway and the goalie was consistently strong on the penalty kill.

"We made the bad plays," Jagr said. ". . . If everybody plays the way they should play we should beat these guys."

Finally, the Capitals caught a break. Sergei Gonchar, who set a career high with his 39th assist of the season last night, had his shot die in traffic. Toronto defenseman Bryan McCabe had a shot to clear it from the slot, but whiffed, and Miller flicked the loose puck past Belfour with about six minutes remaining in the second period, pulling his team back in the game.

Kolzig got his arm on the first shot of the final period -- off the stick of Jonas Hoglund 59 seconds into the period -- but not enough to prevent the puck from entering the net, and Toronto went ahead 3-1. Jagr scored his 32nd goal of the season midway through the period -- surpassing his total from last season -- but Kolzig left an errant rebound that allowed Travis Green to score into an empty net less than two minutes later, icing the win, and Robert and Robert Reichel added late goals.

"The fourth goal, that was the backbreaker," said Kolzig, whose play has slipped of late. "Those are goals you don't want to happen late in the game."

Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Gary Roberts (7) is congratulated by Alexander Mogilny after a goal in the second period while Brendan Witt (19) and Jeff Halpern skate away.Maple Leafs goalie Ed Belfour uses his head while making a save against the Capitals' Kip Miller during first-period action at MCI Center.