As the Boston Bruins moved a step closer to the playoffs, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee looked somber as he walked down a sixth-floor hallway at the MCI Center.
The Capitals lost to the Bruins 4-1 Sunday night, essentially knocking the defending Eastern Conference champions out of the playoff chase. As a result, McPhee now has the go-ahead to unload several of Washington's nine prospective free agents by Tuesday afternoon's trade deadline and start looking to next season.
Joe Thornton and Grant Ledyard set the tone quickly, scoring in the first six minutes, and Steve Heinze and Anson Carter also scored for the Bruins, who have gone 9-3-2 in their last 14 games to take control of the five-team race for eighth place.
"I was a bit hard on the team yesterday," said coach Pat Burns, who blasted his team after a 2-2 tie with San Jose. "But if I'm not going to be hard on them, who is? I didn't like the second half of our game yesterday, and today we came out and played three solid periods.
"What's important is that they know they have to play like this on a regular basis if they expect to make it."
The Bruins still have to fend off Florida, the New York Rangers and maybe Montreal, while Washington's players admitted for the first time that their season is essentially over. The Caps, who had won two in a row to build a modicum of hope, now trail Boston by nine points with 12 games to play.
"It's pretty academic now," center Adam Oates said. "I don't know if we've won five straight this year, let alone 12. Guys are looking over their shoulders with the trade rumors."
From the outset, it was easy to tell why Boston could still be playing in late April while Washington watches on TV. The Bruins were crisper with their passing, played solid defense and repeatedly worked good chanes on their power play. They took the first 12 shots, outshooting the Caps 34-19 for the game.
Byron Dafoe made 18 saves, allowing only Richard Zednik's late goal. Dafoe's task was made easier because the Caps played without seven hurt players including leading scorer Peter Bonrda, who has a bruised hand increasing their tally to 422 man-games lost due to injuries this season.
In very brief postgame remarks, Washington coach Ron Wilson blamed the loss on having to play at Montreal the night before.
"We had a lot of guys who want who just couldn't do it tonight," Wilson said. "We couldn't compete with a younger team in a back-to-back situation."
Nevertheless, Bruins players said they were surprised by the Caps' lack of intensity.
"This is the NHL," defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "No matter if they played last night and we played yesterday afternoon, you got to respond and play hard and it didn't seem like it was there tonight."
The Bruins took the lead when Jason Allison skated around defenseman Enrico Ciccone on a power play and sent the puck trickling around goaltender Olaf Kolzig. Steve Poapst dug it off the line for the Caps, but it ricocheted around the crease and Thornton was there to put home the goal at the 4:43 mark. The goal marked the sixth straight game in which the Bruins have scored on a power play.
Ledyard's slapshot found the space between Kolzig's legs to make it 2-0 at 5:34.
The Capitals' first shot didn't come until 10 minutes had elapsed. Washington did put some occasional pressure on the Bruins net the rest of the game, but the Caps' desperation on offense lead to several odd-man rushes for the Bruins, including a two-on-one that produced Heinze's goal that made it 3-0 just 53 seconds in the second period.
Carter made it 4-0 with an unassisted goal at the 4:11 mark of the third period, picking off James Black's pass in the Caps zone and beating Kolzig one-on-one.
Zednik got Washington on the board when he put in the rebound after Andrei Nikolishin hit the post with 8:14 remaining.
Boston had to kill only one power play, extending their streak to 25 kills without allowing a goal.
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