Kings 3, Capitals 1

Twice last night the Washington Capitals came less than a minute from entering an intermission with a lead or tie, and both times they allowed a critical goal to the Los Angeles Kings. For that they lost a pivotal game, 3-1, at MCI Center, and, in the process, their lead in the Southeast Division.

Washington surrendered goals in the final minute of the first and second periods to a team with no playoff hope that was gutted this week at the trade deadline. The defeat, coupled with Tampa Bay's 3-2 victory over Buffalo, gave the Lightning a one-point lead in the division with one game in hand; Washington had not trailed in that race since Jan. 2.

The Capitals, who had earned points in eight straight games, fell to sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings, and, although they are in solid position to qualify for the postseason, their chances of a long run diminish dramatically if they do not win the division. The Southeast winner is guaranteed at least a top three seed in the playoffs and home-ice advantage in the first round, while also getting to avoid one of the elite teams in that initial round.

"We're going to have to win games to keep up with [Tampa]," captain Steve Konowalchuk said. "We have to assume they're going to win a lot of games, because they have been, and tonight is disappointing because we didn't have it and that's frustrating when you lose and for whatever reason you aren't as sharp as you should be."

The Capitals, playing without top forwards Jaromir Jagr and Kip Miller, were flat from the onset after not playing since Monday. They spent considerable time backed into their own zone in the first period but still ended up scoring the game's first goal, which should have been a mental boost. Sergei Berezin, who was acquired from Chicago for a fourth-round pick at Tuesday's trade deadline, scored on his first shot, the only time Washington would beat rookie goalie Cristobal Huet, who had played only 88 minutes in the NHL prior to last night.

"They're a team that's really banged up and have a young goalie starting in the net and we don't take advantage of it," Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "It's games like these that come back to haunt you."

Berezin's 19th goal of the season came with less than three minutes remaining in the opening period, but the Capitals took no momentum into the first intermission. Cavalier play around their own net, and poor time management, helped the Kings tie the game with 1.5 seconds left before intermission.

Coach Bruce Cassidy opted to use perhaps his least defense-minded line late in the period while also sending his least experienced defensive pair on the ice. Robert Lang lost the puck, Washington wilted behind the net, defensemen Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski were trapped in the crease -- "It was bad communication between me and the defensemen," Kolzig said -- and Mattias Norstrom's shot struck Sean Avery and entered the net.

"We maybe got caught thinking the clock was going to stop, and you've got to play right to the horn," Kolzig said.

The Capitals survived a spell of three straight penalties in the second period, including a lengthy five-on-three, as the crowd jeered referee Kerry Fraser throughout the game. It seemed like Washington might build off that splendid penalty killing, but Ivan Ciernik committed a turnover and Alexander Frolov's attempted pass struck defenseman Calle Johansson's skate, changed directions and slipped between Kolzig's legs with 55 seconds remaining in the second period. The Kings put the game away with about five minutes to play when Ciernik allowed Frolov to charge to the crease for an easy tap-in goal.

"As a group we weren't ready to play," Cassidy said, "But we have guys who need to be better away from the puck defensively, a little more accountable, a little more urgent on the nights it's not there offensively. . . . You have to be able to get points out of a game like tonight, and simple mistakes cost us a hockey game."

Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig looks back in time to see deflected puck, Kings' Ziggy Palffy, who earned assist on critical go-ahead goal from Alexander Frolov with 55 seconds left in second period. Capitals' Ken Klee draws a holding penalty for clearing Los Angeles' Ziggy Palffy from front of the net. Palffy assisted on two of Kings' three goals.