- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

Even without the league’s leading goal scorer and one of their top two defensemen, the Washington Capitals had enough chances to end their slide Thursday night.

Thanks to a couple of third-period defensive breakdowns by Washington and a sterling performance from goaltender Martin Gerber, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t let it happen in a 2-1 victory.

“I think it is a ‘What comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ type thing,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We didn’t finish, and he made some great saves. We had enough chances to win two or three games. We’re in that situation right now where guys are holding their sticks really tight and not doing things that are natural to them, and consequently we’re not scoring.”

Verizon Center was once a safe haven for the home team, but after this defeat in front of an announced sellout crowd, the Caps have lost three straight here and five of seven. With each defeat, Washington’s chances of catching Boston for the top seed - and, at this point, New Jersey for No. 2 - continue to dwindle.

A victory against the Leafs would have pulled the Caps even with the Devils and within six points of the Bruins. Boston has lost nine of 12, but Washington hasn’t taken advantage.

“Guys are pressing pretty hard at this stage right now,” Boudreau said. “We’ve just got to get them to play their game that won 40 games already.”

With the teams scoreless entering the third, Lee Stempniak and Pavel Kubina scored almost four minutes apart for Toronto. Alexander Semin added a goal with less than a minute left for Washington.

The Caps were looking for a bounce-back effort after embarrassing performances against Florida and Carolina, but they were without Alex Ovechkin and ever-reliable defenseman Tom Poti. Ovechkin took a shot off his right foot in practice Wednesday when he stood in front of the net with his back to the play. He needed assistance to limp from the bench to the dressing room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.

“It was my mistake,” said Ovechkin, who has 46 goals and ranks second in the league with 83 points. “I don’t know what I was thinking going to the net. It was just an accident, and it happens.”

Boudreau said he expected Ovechkin to be all right, but the reigning MVP left the ice early at the morning skate Thursday. After multiple attempts to treat the foot with head trainer Greg Smith, it was decided he wouldn’t play.

It was only the fourth game Ovechkin has missed in his four-year NHL career. He missed two games earlier this season when he traveled to Russia to spend time with his ailing grandfather.

“It is always hard when my teammates play without me and I can’t even help them - just sit here and try to cheer for them,” Ovechkin said. “It is hard, but this happens.”

Poti left pregame warmups early, but his name had already been penciled into the starting lineup, so he was on the ice for the opening faceoff. He skated to the bench after the puck was dropped and didn’t return.

The veteran defenseman has had a season plagued by groin problems. He also missed Tuesday’s game against Carolina and has missed 28 contests in four different stretches because of a groin injury.

Ovechkin said he could practice as soon as Friday and play Sunday afternoon against Pittsburgh, but he is day-to-day. If Poti can’t play against the Penguins, the Caps will add a defenseman from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Sergei Fedorov shifted back to the blue line to compensate for the loss of Poti, and the Caps went with 11 forwards. Eric Fehr even logged a couple of shifts as a defenseman while the team was trying to generate more offense.

Claimed Thursday by Toronto on re-entry waivers from Ottawa after the Leafs announced No. 1 netminder Vesa Toskala was out for the season with hip and groin injuries, Gerber made several quality stops among his 37 saves. The highlight of the night came during a wild scrum when David Steckel lifted a puck toward the empty net, but a prone Gerber was able to knock it out of the air with his stick.

“Gerber was pretty sharp - that was his first game with Toronto, so obviously he wants to impress his team,” Fehr said. “I think our team is deep enough that we’re able to contribute in different areas. We have a lot of guys that can step up.

“A couple of shots go a few inches the other way, and it’s a big win for us.”

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