Capital opportunity wasted

WASHINGTON–If the Maple Leafs ultimately miss the playoffs by a point or two, a position they find themselves in this morning, they can look back at this embarrassment as the night the dream died.

The Capitals, tired and replete with minor-leaguers, were supposed to play the Washington Generals to the rested, Globetrotting Leafs. They were, after losing their previous nine games, expected to be nothing more than an anonymous foil to a steamrolling Toronto squad looking to jump from ninth to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

Instead, it was the Leafs who looked like the club that long ago gave up caring about the playoff race as they dropped a humiliating 5-1 decision at a half-empty Verizon Center last night.

“That’s as poorly as we’ve played defensively five-on-five in an awfully long time. We just continued to get beat one-on-one and we looked so damn slow doing it. It was very frustrating,” said coach Paul Maurice.

Man, this was ugly.

The Leafs were outhustled to countless lose pucks, they conceded battles all over the ice and their big line centred by Mats Sundin established no dominance down low.

Given the importance of the points, this was arguably the Leafs’ worst performance since that horrid weekend at Montreal last March that ultimately cost them a post-season berth. Coincidentally, the Leafs are back in Montreal tonight.

“We’re not out of it,” said defenceman Ian White. “We’re still in a tight race.”

Toronto remains one point out of the playoffs, in a tie for ninth with the New York Rangers. Just ahead by that single point are the Islanders and Carolina. Montreal is a point behind Toronto and the Rangers as the five teams in the turtle race for two post-season spots are within two points of each other.

Each of those five teams has lost a game within the last 48 hours.

The test for the Leafs, as Paul Maurice points out, is how they rebound from such a deflating defeat.

“That’s the challenge for our team and all these teams, to handle the emotions of what’s going on,” he said.

“You can be so proud of yourselves as a hockey team one night and feel so defeated after a game like tonight. Then you have to go and play your best game of the year (tonight). And that’s what we have to do.”

Bates Battaglia offered the best advice: “We can’t forget it but we can’t dwell on it either. We’ve just got to be better.”

In emotional, momentum-building wins over Ottawa and Tampa leading into last night, the Leafs were able to rally from behind to take unexpected victories. In this one, they trailed 3-1 going into the third but came out as if they’d already conceded defeat.

“It worries me a little bit because we’ve been slow out of the gate the last three, four games,” said captain Mats Sundin. “You can only catch up so many times.”

Toronto wasn’t helped by the absence of key players Kyle Wellwood and Carlo Colaiacovo, both of whom might be recovered enough to face the Canadiens tonight. John Pohl and Wade Belak jumped in to take their spots.

This was a horror show from the beginning when, less than two minutes in, Steve Eminger launched a long, lazy dump-in that banged off the end boards.

Goaltender Andrew Raycroft left his crease to play it but the puck bounded back through his pads to Capitals rookie Alexandre Giroux, who tapped in his first NHL goal into an empty net.

Six minutes later Toronto defenceman Hal Gill turned the puck over in neutral ice to Alexander Semin – a decidedly bad choice this night – and when Gill scrambled back, Semin danced around him before pouncing on his own rebound for a 2-0 lead. Semin finished with a goal and two assists.

“I blew it. I made two stupid mistakes,” said Gill. “It’s frustrating.”

Gill wasn’t alone. The entire team blew this one.

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