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 sweep the games between these teams in this building.
There were plenty of breakdowns 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.
Matt Stajan deposited 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. He slipped behind Alex Ovechkin and put a pass from Stajan behind Neuvirth with a backhanded flick.
Alexei Ponikarovsky scored Toronto's sixth goal at the 19:20 of the third, providing a capper to the blowout.
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 contest 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 shorthanded. Green had to take a penalty to prevent a breakaway.
Nick Backstrom pushed Washington back in front with second of the night and 10th of the year less than three minutes later. He didn't get all of the shot from inside the left circle but it fluttered past Vesa Toskala at 8:33.
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 amongst the Washington players in front of Neuvirth, and they failed to both clear a loose, bouncing puck and pick up Hagman when he collected the puck just feet away from the goalie.
Ovechkin put the Caps on the board early. He blasted a one-timer from Green past 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.
It was Ovechkin's 21st of the season and the league-leading eighth time he's netted the first goal of the game.
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 team in their barn.