TORONTO | The Washington Capitals were playing their third game in four nights and didn't arrive here until the late morning because of a mechanical issue with their chartered aircraft.
Those are valid concerns but not strong enough excuses for the scope of their meltdown in the final 40 minutes Saturday night at Air Canada Centre. The Toronto Maple Leafs erased an early two-goal deficit and dispatched the Caps 6-3 in front of a sellout crowd and swept the games between these teams in this building.
"Travel concerns don't come into play when you're up 2-0 five minutes into the game - I don't think anyone was complaining then," forward Brooks Laich said. "The first couple goals [against] we had the puck on our sticks in the slot and didn't clear it the corner, which is the first rule of defensive hockey.
"After that, it was breakdown after breakdown, and then the shifts got too long and the problems really were compounded."
There were plenty of problems in front of him, but rookie netminder Michal Neuvirth yielded six goals on 36 shots and lost for the second time in as many NHL starts this season.
The top line produced three goals for the Caps, but the other three units failed to make much of an offensive impact.
"Obviously I thought the last half of the game we played pretty badly," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think outside of Shaone Morrisonn and Tom Poti, all of our defense struggled tonight, and they didn't get any help from the forwards outside of [Nicklas Backstrom's] line. So I guess it was basically a complete team letdown."
Matt Stajan scored his second of the game 5:03 into the final period to put Toronto in front. Francois Beauchemin's point shot after a faceoff win never made it to the net, but Stajan was there to steer the loose puck past Neuvirth.
Lee Stempniak made it 5-3 with a shorthanded goal at 9:44. Alexei Ponikarovsky added the final blow with 40 seconds left.
"It was a really tough night," Neuvirth said. "I was feeling good after the first. I was happy with how the game was going in the first 20 minutes. ... It was a tough game, and I need to put this behind me."
After crafting a quick 2-0 lead, the Caps let the Maple Leafs back in the game with a second period to forget. Stajan pounced on the rebound of a Phil Kessel shot in part because Mike Green was unable to cancel him out in front of Neuvirth 1:29 into the middle period.
Toronto tied the score with Kessel's five-on-three goal at 5:54. The Maple Leafs secured the two-man advantage because Green allowed a Toronto forward to get behind him while Alexander Semin rushed the puck to the other end short-handed.
Backstrom pushed Washington back in front with second of the night and 10th of the year less than three minutes later at the 8:33 mark.
Niklas Hagman, who had his team's lone goal and winning shootout tally in a 2-1 victory against the Caps here three weeks ago, knotted the score at 3-3. There was confusion among the Washington players in front of Neuvirth, and they failed to clear a loose, bouncing puck and pick up Hagman when he collected the puck just feet away from the goalie.
"Overall, our whole defensive zone [coverage] was bad," Green said.
Alex Ovechkin put the Caps on the board early with his 21st of the season. He blasted a one-timer from Green past Vesa Toskala 120 seconds into this contest after the Toronto goaltender afforded Washington a power play by covering up the puck in the right faceoff circle.
Backstrom made it 2-0 a little more than three minutes later. He controlled the puck in the left circle before dropping it off to Ovechkin and maneuvering toward the right post. Ovechkin fired a hard pass through a mass of bodies to him, and Backstrom tapped it into the net before Toskala could react.
This was the second suspect performance against one of the league's bottom feeders in as many nights. Washington needed overtime to best the NHL's worst team, the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-3 at Verizon Center, but the Caps weren't so fortunate against the league's second-worst club in their barn.
"We know teams are going to give us their best effort because we've been on top of the standings," Laich said. "They look at it as a challenge. ... They outworked us tonight, and [if] we don't outwork teams - regardless of our skill level - we don't win."