TORONTO — The sprinkling of hats prolonged the Washington Capitals' pain, and it's a sight the team has had to endure often in the past week. Forward Brett Connolly scooped up one cap and dumped it into the space between the benches in an effort to speed up the cleanup effort.
Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri had just scored his third goal of the game, the tally that ensured the Capitals would return to their locker room losers once again. In an indictment of the team's loose play of late, that's the fourth hat trick Washington has allowed in the past five games. This one sealed a 6-3 defeat to the Maple Leafs that extended the Capitals' losing streak to seven games — and Washington's free fall will now be paused by a week-long break.
"It's done," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "That's it. We have a break, so let's move on."
Through Wednesday's results, the Capitals still sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, three points back of the first-place New York Islanders. But while it may be too soon for Washington to panic about its postseason position, a team that returned the vast majority of its championship roster hoping to defend its title looks lost.
"You can't just keep saying it's all going to be okay and keep doing that," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "We've got to put the work in. It's just a little bit of accumulation of maybe not pushing ourselves hard enough all year. When the luck's not going your way, it kind of snowballs."
With the Capitals down by a goal entering a crucial third period, Kadri made it a 4-2 game with a one-timer from the high slot 2:10 into the frame.
And while Washington certainly showed some signs of improvement against the Toronto, particularly in the first period, the Capitals have allowed 30 goals in the past five games, a departure for a team that won a Stanley Cup last year with its suffocating, stingy style of play. Kadri's third goal came eight minutes later, followed by the hats.
Asked before the game if he would consider this a "midseason must-win" game, Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said, "for sure, I want a response from our team."
It wasn't a favorable situation for a club mired in a slump - the second game of a back-to-back set on the road and the last contest before a week-long break for the All-Star Game and bye week. Reirden opted to start Holtby after he'd played in Tuesday's overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks in a decision he said was "a signal to our team that we're doing everything we can to win this hockey game."
Holtby never started both games of a back-to-back last season, but he did it in the first two games of this one. When playing in a second game in as many nights throughout his career, Holtby was 9-4-3 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.85 goals against average entering Wednesday's game.
He's been struggling of late, allowing seven goals on 43 shots on Tuesday night, two days after he allowed four goals on 11 shots to the Blackhawks before being pulled in the second period.
The Capitals also decided to play Ovechkin in this game. Because he's skipping the All-Star Game in San Jose this weekend after being voted the Metropolitan Division captain, he has to serve a one-game suspension from the NHL in either the game immediately before the event or the one right after it.
Washington decided to have Ovechkin play against the Maple Leafs, so he'll miss the Capitals' Feb. 1 home game against the Calgary Flames.
It added weight to Wednesday's result; Washington will now have to try to snap this seven-game losing streak without its best player next game.
That choice nearly backfired just 7:30 into the game. Ovechkin and teammate T.J. Oshie collided in the neutral zone, both dropping to the ice in pain.
Ovechkin was slow to get up, holding his head on the ice before returning to the bench. But he later went to the locker room when an NHL concussion spotter informed the bench that he needed to be evaluated for a head injury.
Just as Washington was about to go on its first power play of the game at the 16:49 mark, Ovechkin returned to the ice and took up his left faceoff circle post.
"I just lost my breathing, and I was surprised the NHL called and tried to see what happened," Ovechkin said. "You know me."
With two seconds left in that man-advantage, Nicklas Backstrom redirected Evgeny Kuznetsov's pass for a 1-0 lead, the first time the Capitals have scored the first goal in five games.
But after one of Washington's more organized frames in recent memory, Toronto tied the game less than a minute later. Holtby didn't cover up a bouncing puck in the crease, and before he could get to it, Kadri knocked it in with just 24 seconds left in the first period.
The Capitals responded shortly after intermission.
Ovechkin scored his league-leading 37th goal of the season 3:51 into the frame, tying former teammate Sergei Fedorov for the most career points by a Russian-born player.
But Washington started to unravel after that, and it was Toronto who took a 3-2 lead into the third period.
"We need better efforts from everybody," Backstrom said. "You can talk about it, watch video, but I think this is a work thing. Everyone's got to work a little harder and work a little better as a team."
With Washington trailing, 5-2, late in the game, defenseman Matt Niskanen scored.
The Capitals formed a group hug after the goal, but there was no celebrating.