TORONTO — Early in this season, coach Adam Oates has made it clear he's more worried about the process, or how his Washington Capitals play, than if they win. He wants to see them play the "right way," even if it's at the expense of results.
Oates got neither Thursday night in a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Caps built a lead despite sloppy play and a parade to the penalty box, but it caught up to them. The end result was a collapse similar to the one they suffered Tuesday night at the Ottawa Senators.
"We've got to tighten it up, and it's getting frustrating with these last few games the way it's been," right wing Joey Crabb said. "It's unacceptable. We obviously aren't happy about it."
So many of what Crabb called "little mistakes" have become fresh meat for opponents, who have taken full advantage. This loss dropped the Caps to 1-5-1, and with three points in seven games, they're dead last in the NHL.
"It seems that we cannot put a 60-minute [game together] like that," center Mike Ribeiro said. "It's always five minutes here undisciplined and, boom, it costs us. If you look back at [the past four] games, we could've had three wins instead of three losses."
Oates blamed penalties for Thursday night's debacle.
For two periods, the Caps took eight, count 'em eight, minor penalties. It was a who's who of calls, from hooking to unsportsmanlike conduct to delay of game for putting the puck over the glass.
"Discipline's been probably what's costing us since the beginning of the year," Ribeiro said. "If you don't change that, then it's just going to keep snowballing like that."
They spent 12:11 of the first 40 minutes short-handed, a recipe for disaster except that the Maple Leafs' power play was inept. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth had a few big stops as Toronto went 1-for-8 with the man advantage; the Caps even killed off a five-on-three power play for the first time this season.
Spending so much time on the penalty kill wasn't the Caps' undoing against the Maple Leafs, but those grueling minutes added up.
"You spend so much energy trying to kill those penalties that maybe you run out of a little bit of juice," Oates said. "And we made a couple mistakes on the goals."
The mistakes, which Oates said he wanted to keep between him and his team, were the same kind of mental lapses that led to the penalties.
Players said while it was hard on the penalty killers to deal with the short-handed time, it was even worse on those who spent long stretches of time on the bench.
That included captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored on the power play but didn't have many chances until late in the third period.
"I think luck is just not [on] our side," Ovechkin said. "I think we get too many penalties right away, lots of guys sit on bench, was cold."
The Caps didn't commit a penalty in the game's final 26 minutes. But by then it was too late. Even with the entire third played without special teams, they were outshot 16-9 and didn't register one on goal until almost midway through the final period.
By the time the shots came, the lead was gone, and many of them were a furious attempt to come back after Matt Frattin turned the Caps inside out and scored what wound up being the game-winner.
And the end result was the second straight game the Caps blew a second-intermission lead. They had registered points in each of the previous 103 times they led after two.
"We had the lead there and we coughed it up again," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We need to have that killer instinct, we need to go for that next goal."
Oates said last week the big question about his team was if it could play a full 60 minutes. Thursday night the Caps showed yet again that they were incapable of doing so without making a plethora of mistakes.
"Once again, it's details of the game that we need to focus on and put teams away," Ribeiro said. "It's 2-1, put teams away. Don't let them sniff around and let them sniff around and not finish them. I guess that's the next step is to play a 60-minute game, and when you have a chance to finish teams, finish them."
When the Caps haven't been able to do that, they've proven all too mortal.
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