Some aspects of Washington's game looked better than they have recently on Wednesday night in Toronto, but right now that's a low bar. Other aspects of the Caps' collective game continued to plague them against the Leafs, and the result was a 6-3 loss that extends Washington's losing streak to seven straight games (0-5-2), their longest in almost exactly five years.
The Caps gave up a goal within a minute of scoring one. A couple of failed clearing attempts on the penalty kill resulted in a Toronto goal. After taking a 2-1 lead into the back half of the second period, the Caps failed to add to it, and instead yielded a chunk of unanswered goals - four of them. And for the fourth time in the last five games, the Caps were victimized by a hat trick performance on then part of one of their opponents, the Leafs' Nazem Kadri on this night.
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin makes history in 6-3 loss
All of it added up to a seventh straight setback in the Caps' final game before they take a week off from the rink for the NHL All-Star break and their bye week. Washington has been outscored by a combined total of 36-18 during the life of the slide, and 14 of those goals for - and 21 of the goals against - came in the last three games.
"When things don't go our way now, it's tough," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "If you have a winning streak, things are going easy for you. If you have a losing streak it's a little tougher for you, and you've got to work extra hard for things. I think overall, we all need to step up here. We all need to play better as a team. We're not happy with the way we've played, and that's something we have to think about over the break here."
At this time last month, the Caps were in the midst of a prosperous 16-3-0 run. Now, they've won three of their last 13 games (3-7-3).
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | January 23
"The overall commitment and mental lapses, probably, and our detail in some areas," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, when asked where his team's five-on-five has eroded over the last month. "I think it caught up with us in those spots. We got away with it for obviously a great stretch where we go 16-3, and things go our way. And right now, they're not.
"That's on our coaching staff and our players to realize that, and continue to realize what the game needs to look like for us to have success, take our break, and come back with that thought in mind of how we need to play, and get back to playing Caps' ice hockey. That hasn't been the case here for the last 10 games."
The Caps got a scare early in the first when Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie collided in neutral ice, resulting in Ovechkin's temporary departure from the game. The Caps' captain returned in time for the game's first power play with 3:11 left in the first.
Washington took advantage of that extra-man opportunity to jump out to a 1-0 lead. With two seconds remaining on the power play, Backstrom tapped home a perfect feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov, scoring from the back door at 18:47.
But as has happened all too frequently to the Capitals of late, they gave that goal back less than a minute later. The Leafs forechecked Washington, chipping the puck from behind the net to the front where Caps goalie Braden Holtby attempted to cover it, only to have Kadri knock it into the net before he could do so, tying the game at 1-1 with 25.3 seconds left in the first.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | January 23
"It has been the case for us that the shift after a goal, and after the 19-minute mark, we give up a goal and lose some of the momentum that we had gained," laments Reirden. "That seems to be a little bit of the story of how things have gone for us."
Early in the second, the Caps regained the lead on Ovechkin's fourth goal in two games and his 37th of the season. Washington moved the puck quickly through neutral ice on a regroup, Michal Kempny feeding T.J. Oshie near the Toronto line and the latter sending Ovechkin into Leafs territory on the right side. Ovechkin wound up and beat Toronto's Frederik Andersen with a slapshot from above the right circle to make it 2-1 for the Caps at 3:51.
Both sides were able to establish some offensive zone presence over the remainder of the period, and the Leafs pulled even at 2-2 late in the frame when Nikita Zaitsev nestled a wrist shot into the top right corner of the cage from center point at 13:11.
Toronto got its first and only power play opportunity just over two minutes later when Ovechkin was sent off for crosschecking. Washington won the defensive zone draw, but missed a couple of chances to clear, and the Leafs made them pay. Auston Matthews slipped a shot through Holtby's pads to give the Leafs their first lead of the night, 3-2 at 16:19 of the second.
Toronto did what the Caps weren't able to when they had the lead; the Leafs added to it. Kadri made it 4-2 with a one-timer from the slot at 2:10 of the third, and he finished the hat trick and netted the Leafs' fourth unanswered goal at 10:15 to send the Caps into a three-goal hole.
Matt Niskanen pulled the Caps to within two again with a right point drive at 17:12, but Mitch Marner's empty-netter accounted for the 6-3 final in the game's final minute.
Wednesday's game concludes the month of January for the Caps, who have the next week off before returning to action on Feb. 1 against Calgary in the opener of a six-game homestand.
"I think the break is coming at a good time for us," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We understand that there is a lot of work to be done when we get back, and I have a lot of confidence in our leadership group and in the group in that room that has been through adversity and have shown their true colors when push comes to shove. So that's what I expect when we get back."