- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

CHICAGO — There was a lengthy pregame ceremony to energize a hostile crowd. The team was playing its second game in as many nights. It had only played well in short spurts in the previous two games but escaped with victories. There was a fluky early goal.

Maybe it was one of those factors. Maybe it was all of them. Regardless, the Washington Capitals’ four-game winning streak came to an ignominious end last night as they were bulldozed by the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0 at United Center.

“They just played an awful lot better than us and made us look pretty bad,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The Caps were outshot 18-6 in the opening 20 minutes and trailed by four goals at the first intermission — and the game might not have been as close as the scoreboard indicated.

Four of those six Washington shots came in the final 2:30 of the period. When time expired, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin argued with each other as they skated off the ice. Seconds earlier, Ovechkin had banged his stick on the ice calling for a pass from Semin, and he did not comply, electing to throw the puck in front of the net instead.

“We are usually pretty good in the first period. I just think we had a real stinker,” Boudreau said. “We stunk in the first period. … They were lethargic, and they didn’t have any jump from Ovechkin to [Donald] Brashear. There was just something missing.”

With the loss, the Caps fell five points behind the Southeast division-leading Carolina Hurricanes with seven games to play. They remain three back of idle Philadelphia for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but Buffalo leapfrogged Washington into ninth place with a 7-4 win against Tampa Bay.

Jason Williams redirected a shot from the point by James Wisniewski 1:27 in to put Chicago on the board first. Williams tipped the puck, and it fluttered over Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig’s head but under the crossbar.

Caps defenseman Sami Lepisto was sent to the penalty box 1:04 later, and the Blackhawks needed less than a minute to capitalize. Jonathan Toews took a pair of whacks at the puck from point-blank range, and just as Shaone Morrisonn shoved him onto Kolzig, the puck sneaked in between the goaltender’s right leg and the post.

Kolzig sprung up from the ice to protest but to no avail. It was Toews’ 21st goal of the season, which leaves him one shy of Phoenix’s Peter Mueller for tops among rookies despite missing 18 games with injuries.

Yanic Perreault made it 3-0 9:14 into the period when he ripped a slap shot over Kolzig’s left shoulder from the top of the left faceoff circle.

Patrick Sharp added the final insult of the period at 17:54. After Kolzig failed to secure Sharp’s first shot along the left wall, the puck ended up in front to the right of the goalie. He was able to stop Andrew Ladd’s shot from close range, but the rebound went to Sharp for a layup and his 35th goal of the season.

Things really didn’t get much better in the second period. After the Caps’ top line turned the puck over near the offensive blue line, Williams banked a pass off the boards to set Rene Bourque free on a breakaway. Bourque deked to his forehand before slipping his shot through Kolzig’s legs at 10:19.

“We were getting away with some things the last two games, and it culminated tonight,” Kolzig said. “Hopefully we learn what not to do and apply it on Friday. We’ve just got to put this game … throw it in the trash and not let it linger.”

Notes — Quintin Laing returned to the lineup after sitting four games as a healthy scratch. Laing played three games with the Blackhawks in 2003-04 and played with several of the current Chicago players when he spent parts of six seasons with Norfolk of the American Hockey League. …

Laing replaced Eric Fehr on the active roster. Fehr, defenseman Steve Eminger and goaltender Brent Johnson were the healthy scratches.

Last night at United Center in Chicago

SEEN AND HEARD

As part of the Chicago Blackhawks’ effort to reconnect with their fan base, it was Tony Esposito Night at United Center. The Blackhawks honored Esposito, whose No. 35 was put in the rafters nearly 20 years ago.

Like other past Chicago greats, “Tony O” had distanced himself from the team, so last night — like Stan Mikita/Bobby Hull night on March 7 — was something of a welcome home party. Fans were given masks like the one Esposito made famous during his Hall of Fame career with the Blackhawks.

BY THE NUMBERS

15 Shutouts by Esposito in his rookie season, which still stands as an NHL record.

9 Players taken in the top nine of the 2006 NHL draft who have played in the league after seventh pick Kyle Okposo made his debut with the Islanders on Tuesday — including Chicago’s Jonathan Toews (No. 3 overall) and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom (No. 4).

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