WASHINGTON -- The Maple Leafs put their playoff aspirations on hold for one night.
Rather than display the kind of intensity needed to make a serious drive to the post-season, the Leafs took their feet off the gas pedal against one of the worst teams in the National Hockey League and crashed.
Thanks to the mistake-filled and generally lazy manner in which the Leafs went about their jobs, the Washington Capitals cruised to a 5-1 win in a half-empty Verizon Center.
There was no logical reason before the game for the Leafs to lose -- this was a Capitals team that had lost nine in a row and had won once in regulation since Jan. 27.
"That is as poorly as we have played defensively five-on-five in an awfully long time," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said.
"We just continued to get beaten one-on-one and looked so damn slow doing it. Very frustrating.
"We did not move the puck well enough from the start of the game to the end of the game from our end of the ice. And it was not just the defencemen. For whatever reason, we were stuck in the mud back there."
There were concerns afterward. The Leafs have been putting themselves in holes in recent games, getting behind on the scoreboard early, but have managed to win.
Playing with that kind of fire singed them last night as the Capitals waltzed out of the first period with a 2-0 lead.
With a playoff spot not close to a guarantee, this kind of cliffhanger hockey is troubling. "It worries me a little bit because we have been slow out of the gate the past three or four games," captain Mats Sundin said. "For some reason we are not on our toes at the start of games, and you can only catch up so many times. We keep doing that and we are going to put ourselves in a hole too many times."
The Leafs could have moved into sole possession of seventh in the Eastern Conference with a win. They have 77 points, the same as the New York Rangers, and remain in eighth place, one behind the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes.
But winning is difficult when Hal Gill lets Alexander Semin take the puck from him, a scenario which led to the home side's second goal, or when Bates Battaglia makes a half-hearted effort to check Kris Beech, which led to the Capitals' fourth goal. Those plays summed up the Leafs' lack of effort and lack of attention to detail through the evening.
Gill said, "I made two stupid mistakes. I tried to cover the slot and gave the guy one step and he took it."
Nik Antropov scored his 15th goal for the Leafs, one shy of his career high, set in 2002-03. Alexandre Giroux, with his first NHL goal, Semin, Boyd Gordon, Beech and Tomas Fleischmann scored for the Capitals.
The Leafs were without centre Kyle Wellwood and defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo. John Pohl was in the lineup after missing a game with discomfort in his back. Wade Belak took Colaiacovo's spot on the blue line. Wellwood, recovering after undergoing sports hernia surgery, and Colaiacovo, thought to have suffered a minor leg injury against the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday, are expected to be in the lineup tonight in Montreal against the Canadiens.