- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An unlikely pair of victories in California two weeks ago had John Carlson thinking the Washington Capitals were playing their best hockey in several years.

Why wouldn’t he? The Capitals defeated the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, the best two teams in the Pacific Division, and snagged a point in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

“But you know, it seems like something always knocks us down a peg, and we certainly don’t need that,” Carlson said.

On Tuesday, the Capitals were knocked down a few pegs – and it’s increasingly likely they won’t be able to recover. A pair of second-period goals were topped off by a backbreaking short-handed goal in the third, and the Capitals lost their fourth consecutive game, falling 5-0 to the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center.

That loss, coupled with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ victory over the Calgary Flames, means the Capitals (34-28-13, 81 points) stand two points back of the final playoff position with six games to play.

“If I was a fan, I’d be booing us right now,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who replaced starter Jaroslav Halak in the second period. “A playoff race like we’re in? To lose 5-0, it’s awful. There’s no words for it.”

Kari Lehtonen had 35 saves for his third shutout of the season for the Stars (37-27-11), who have won five of their last six and entered the game in a similar position as the Capitals in the standings – one point back of the final wild card playoff spot.

The problem, as it has all season, lies in the Capitals‘ careless mistakes. After top-line center Tyler Seguin gave Dallas a 1-0 lead with a deflection of left wing Jamie Benn’s shot 15:08 into the first period, winger Ray Whitney scored 9:16 into the second period on a two-man rush set up by defenseman Alex Goligoski on a pass from the opposite blue line.

Then, just 34 seconds later, fourth-line center Dustin Jeffery took advantage of a scrum in front of the crease to poke the puck into the net, all while Capitals defenseman John Erskine and fourth-line center Chris Brown were occupied in a shoving match with Stars winger Alex Chiasson.

“We played a fast game tonight,” Whitney said, “We had a lot of chances. We had a lot of two-on-ones, and we even had a two-on-zero. Not often do you see that many scoring chances.”

Jeffrey, recently called up from the AHL, scored his second goal of the game 9:55 into the third period, and winger Ryan Garbutt added a shorthanded goal 14:50 into the frame when he blew by Capitals defenseman Mike Green and beat Holtby on his left.

Holtby had 11 saves, while Halak, who had started nine of the last 11 games since being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline, had 20 saves in 26:46.

Washington went 0-for-5 on the power play, but the Stars, who entered with the 22nd-ranked power play and penalty kill units, went 0-for-4.

The Capitals will play their next four games on the road and won’t play again at home until they host the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the last two games of the season. By then, they might not need to be play with determination and urgency, whether they’d like to or not.

“I think, you know, as a team, we thought we probably needed all seven to get in, but now we have no choice,” Carlson said. “It’s definitely probably going to be a win-out situation.”

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