LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals were looking for defense, defense, defense against the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils last night. But by the time the game was over, they were searching for offense, offense, offense.
The Devils made first-period goals by Brian Rolston and Shawn Chambers stand up for a 2-1 victory. Goalie Martin Brodeur made 20 saves and stretched the Devils' record against Washington to 12-2-1 over the past 15 games and ended Washington's five-game home winning streak.
"The first six minutes of the game lost it for us today," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We gave up four or five odd-man rushes in the first period, and that was not in the game plan."
It was also not in the game plan to have Peter Bondra, the team's leading goal-scorer, on the bench for the second and third periods.
But after the first, Bondra was benched. Initially, the Capitals reported it was a coaching decision. Later, however, Schoenfeld said Bondra has a groin strain.
Bondra, who has never had a groin injury, said he does not know when he will be able to resume play. "It is a day-to-day situation," he said. "I would like to be ready for New York, but we have to wait and see."
He absence further weakens the Capitals' season-ending playoff drive. The team's two biggest defensemen -- Mark Tinordi (concussion) and Brendan Witt (broken wrist) -- are on the sidelines. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar nearly joined them, when he was slashed in the head in the second period and needed eight stitches to close the wound.
Last night's loss tightens the Eastern Conference playoff race considerably. The Capitals hold sixth place with a one-point margin over Tampa Bay and New Jersey in the race for the eight qualifying seeds in the postseason.
"I considered the Eastern Conference would be a dogfight from the beginning to the end," said Schoenfeld. "Now there are just a few more dogs, that's all. We've just got to start winning hockey games."
For the Capitals, things don't get any easier. The team leaves on a three-game trip Monday for games against the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, the second-place Florida Panthers and the improving Boston Bruins, who are just four points out of eighth.
Schoenfeld tried to change the outcome of last night's game by spreading out his offense and tightening his defense. The result was that the Capitals played their usual game, falling behind by two goals on New Jersey's first three shots of the game, and attempting a victory rally.
"The first goal was a good shot and the second one, J. J. [Jimmy Johnson] just turned me around with his stick," said Capitals goalie Jim Carey, who stopped 17 of 19 shots. "Those things are going to happen, you're going to run into your own guys once in a while. But that was it. That was the game.
"Things are tight, but they were tight last year. They've been tight ever since I've been here. But once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. That's been our motto since I've been here."
The Capitals' defense clicked in the second period, but aside from a power-play goal by Sylvain Cote at 4:05 of the second period, the offense never did, unless you want to count two goals that were disallowed.
The first one, by Cote at 6:28 of the first, did not count because of a penalty call on Dale Hunter. The second one, by Keith Jones, was disallowed because the on-ice official said it was directed in off Jones' skate.
"Jonesy's goal should never have been disallowed," said Joe Juneau, who assisted on the play at 13:57 of the third period. "There was no reason for that goal to be disallowed."
But it was, and the outcome means the Capitals now have been beaten by the Devils four straight times this season, while being outscored 11-3.
The two sides will complete the series April 11, back at USAir Arena.
NOTES: Capitals backup G Olie Kolzig, who has been with Portland of the American Hockey League for a reconditioning assignment, returns to the team today. He was 5-0 with the Pirates. . . . C Stefan Ustorf had his separated shoulder checked yesterday and will not make the coming road trip.