- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

It was deja vu for the Washington Capitals last night in Ottawa, but the ending this time wasn’t as satisfying.

On Thursday at MCI Center, the Caps led defending champion New Jersey midway through the game, fell behind and then rallied for the tie. Last night they took the lead early in the second period but then gave up three straight goals en route to losing to the powerful Senators 5-2 at Corel Centre.

“We had a lead, and we’ve led in four of the last six games, or something like that, and we haven’t been able to hold on,” Caps center Halpern said. “Once you start losing it’s hard to get out of that rut, and we’re in that rut right now.”

The loss extended Washington’s winless streak to five games (0-4-1) as it headed to Montreal for tonight’s end to a stretch of four games in five nights, three of them on the road. Four of the five games are against teams from the formidable Northeast Division against whom the Caps are an ugly 2-10-2, 0-7-1 on the road. The good news for Washington is that after tonight, it faces just one Northeast foe over the next two months.

Playing without skilled forwards Peter Bondra and Dainius Zubrus and rookie defenseman Steve Eminger, the cellar-dwelling Caps (11-24-4-1) battled the red-hot Senators (7-0-2 in their last nine games) evenly for more than two periods but collapsed in the final 20 minutes, getting outshot 14-1.

Washington, which had killed a pair of 5-on-3 short-handed situations against New Jersey, was the beneficiary of such a situation midway through the first period after Ottawa’s Chris Neil had failed to convert.

With Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang buzzing in the offensive zone, defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn hooked down Lang. Forty-one seconds later, Todd White high-sticked Halpern. However, the Caps failed to take advantage of the 79 seconds of 5-on-3 time and either power play against the Senators’ third-rated penalty-killers, putting just two shots on backup goalie Martin Prusek, filling in for Patrick Lalime who was attending the birth of his second child.

After the scoreless first period in which Ottawa had an 11-4 shot margin, Washington went on the power play again at 3:15 of the second, and this time the third-ranked unit clicked. With teammates Bates Battaglia and Halpern battling down low, Sergei Gonchar fired a shot. As he was being knocked to the ice by Bryan Smolinski, Halpern got enough of the puck to put his fourth goal in six games in the right side of the net at 5:08.

The Caps didn’t hold the lead for even 10 minutes because at 14:31, after Neil forced a turnover in the neutral zone, Jason Spezza dropped a pretty pass for Smolinski who beat Olie Kolzig from the right circle to tie the score.

Washington, which hadn’t been shorthanded in the first two periods, killed Lang’s interference call at 18 seconds of the third, but when Boyd Gordon went off for holding the stick at 3:53, Daniel Alfredsson responded with a blast from the right circle to give Ottawa a 2-1 lead at 4:43.

Less than seven minutes later, White won a faceoff in the Washington zone, drawing the puck to Leschyshyn, who passed to Alfredsson for the screened shot that eluded Kolzig. The goal at 11:25 was Alfredsson’s 16th against the Caps over the last five seasons, the most by any opponent.

With 2:19 remaining, Ottawa had outshot Washington 12-0 in the period, but that’s when Lang took advantage of sloppy play by the Senators in their own zone, converting a pair of turnovers into his team-high 20th goal on a high shot from the slot.

“It didn’t seem like we had a lot of jump tonight early on,” Alfredsson said. “We couldn’t get in forechecking a lot, and the few shifts we did, we created some chances.

“But we came out with more energy in the third and we were able to get some more pressure, and we really put them on their backs.”

The score gave the NHL’s second-leading scorer his fifth 20-goal season, but that was it for the Caps, who surrendered empty-net scores to Smolinski and Neil in the next 77 seconds to fall to 3-6-3 under coach Glen Hanlon, who replaced Bruce Cassidy behind the bench on Dec.10.

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