TORONTO — The Washington Capitals took to the ice at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night with the chance to snap out of a slump against the extremely short-handed Toronto Maple Leafs. Instead, they suffered their worst loss of the season.
The Capitals looked uninterested throughout Toronto’s 7-1 win, dropping their fourth consecutive game. While the previous losses could be attributed to sloppiness, at least in those games Washington showed a modicum of intensity.
Saturday, as the Maple Leafs piled on goal after goal, Washington appeared largely apathetic, save a brief spark late in the third period when the contest was out of hand.
For the majority of the game, though, players didn’t chase down loose pucks, failed to pick up defensive assignments and passed up shots. On the bench, shoulders drooped and heads lowered between shifts. The Capitals fell to 1-5-1 in their past seven games and 3-7-1 since starting the season 7-0. So far, nothing seems able to pull them out of their tailspin.
“The other games, I think it was one or two areas that we got exposed, that cost us. Tonight it was just an [butt]-kicking every which way,” Mike Knuble said. “Even strength, short-handed, from the goalies to the D to the forwards, four-on-five, five-on-four — [a butt]-kicking.”
By the end, Washington was routed by a Maple Leafs team that was playing without seven regulars, including its No. 1 goaltender, and was on its own 1-4-1 skid entering Saturday night.
It came one day after Coach Bruce Boudreau gave the team the day off to recharge and the team held meetings that left players saying they could rectify the problems that led to the losing streak. When given the chance to back up those words with action, though, the Capitals exhibited the same familiar problems on a greater scale.
“We’re obviously not getting the job done right now. To answer that question I have to talk about certain things that I don’t want to talk about,” Boudreau said when asked what the difference was between the success to start the season and the current slump.
“You just have to work hard. You’ll get out of it. We’ll get out of it. You work hard, and it’s four games. It went from losing in a shootout, to controlling the game until the last 30 seconds, to losing fairly bad, to getting smoked. It feels like the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world.”
The 56-year-old coach, who is one win away from his 200th NHL victory, is believed to be under intense pressure to help push the Capitals to postseason success. General Manager George McPhee, who typically does not discuss team personnel matters, declined to comment when asked to offer Boudreau a vote of confidence after Saturday’s loss.
Brooks Laich said it is every player’s responsibility to pull out of the skid and that the Capitals need to return to trusting in the team.
“It’s not the team with the best players that always wins, it’s the team that plays best together,” Laich said. “At times tonight we were disconnected, we were on an island a little bit. When we’re successful it’s all about support, short passes and five-man units on the ice.”
Washington sustained little to no offensive pressure through lengthy stretches in the contest and was pushed around by Toronto (11-7-2). Laich tied the score at 1 early in the first period, 52 seconds after the Maple Leafs took the initial lead, but the Capitals showed little snarl.
Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson finished with 40 saves. Washington’s Tomas Vokoun was pulled 51 / 2 minutes into the second period after allowing four goals on 18 shots. Michal Neuvrith yielded three goals on 11 shots in relief.
Washington’s 7-0 start to the season was the best in franchise history, but bad habits that were hinted at during that run have been pushed to the forefront. Saturday’s uninspired play had the look of a culmination of a gradual process that began in October.
“We’ve struggled probably the last  games now, we haven’t been playing well,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “Even when we were winning those seven games there were a lot of games there we got outplayed and our goalies stood on their heads and got us those wins. It’s been going on for a while. If we don’t correct it soon we’re going to find ourselves looking up.”
Washington plays four games in the next six days, and six of its next seven games at home, giving it plenty of opportunity to climb out of the losing streak or dig a deeper hole. Forward Troy Brouwer, one of five offseason acquisitions and prized in part for his Stanley Cup-winning experience, said despite the ugliness this single loss will not unravel the season.
“What game is it? Eighteen? Sixteen? Seventeen? The season’s not a write-off,” Brouwer said. “We’re not worried. You make playoffs. When was the last time the first overall place team won the Stanley Cup? I can’t tell you. . . . A lot of the times, you just need to make sure that you’re on your game going into the playoffs, and for us we’ve got to focus on winning our division, winning hockey games, and putting ourselves in a good spot when we get into the playoffs to give ourselves a run at the Cup.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a fourth consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. The defenseman has missed 10 of the Capitals’ past 11 outings.