Toronto Maple Leafs forward Matt Frattin, right, battles for the loose puck after being tripped up by Washington Capitals defenceman Jeff Schultz, left, during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
TORONTO - Dion Phaneuf cleared his throat and did his best to explain the storm clouds that have enveloped the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It is a tough time of year for guys playing in a big market like this and hearing stuff day in and day out," Phaneuf said after Saturday's 4-2 loss to Washington. "But it's part of the business and we've all been through it. We're going to come back with the right attitude and we've got to win hockey games, that's the bottom line.
"We haven't been winning them and we have to start."
The Maple Leafs fell flat in their final outing before the trade deadline, allowing Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals to beat them on the ice and leapfrog them in the Eastern Conference standings.
Phaneuf delivered the strongest words after watching his team fall to 1-7-1 since Feb. 7 in yet another game where the Leafs lacked urgency. And with Monday's trade deadline looming, he made it clear that he doesn't believe big changes are needed.
"We believe in this group," said Phaneuf.
Everything came unravelled quickly against a Capitals team was playing for the second time in as many nights. Marcus Johansson surprised James Reimer with a wraparound goal just 32 seconds in and Alex Semin followed with another at 3:46, stealing the puck from Luke Schenn and beating Reimer between the legs.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson quickly called a timeout to try to settle things down. But the damage was done.
"The two goals early in the game were stoppable chances," said Wilson. "They got saves at one end and we didn't. We dug a hole because of that. We're kind of always waiting now for something bad to happen on the goal-line and we've got to find a way to get over that."
Keith Aucoin and Jeff Halpern also scored while Ovechkin added two assists for Washington (31-26-5), which jumped into eighth spot in the conference. Michael Neuvirth was solid in making 32 saves.
"Tonight was a huge win for us," said Capitals defenceman Mike Green. "It puts us back where we want to be and we've got to keep getting better from here. It's been a rough go this year and we've got to make up some ground."
Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly replied with third-period goals for the Maple Leafs (29-26-7).
Tensions are running high in Toronto. Burke has yet to reveal his deadline plans beyond saying he'll look into acquiring a goalie—leaving fans to debate whether he should try to make a big move that could help now or be patient and avoid mortgaging the future.
The players insist they're not waiting for a big shakeup.
"No one's going to help us but the guys that are playing in this room," said Phaneuf. "It's not a time to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves. We're going to come out of it, we're going to hold our heads high and we're going to push our way through this rough patch.
"Because it's definitely a hole we've put ourselves in at a crucial time of the year. But we're still in the race and there's lots of hockey to be played."
During the Leafs recent rough patch, the goaltending has been placed under the microscope by Burke, Wilson and the paying customers.
Reimer received a couple Bronx cheers in the first period after surrendering the two early goals on Saturday night. It's a long way from the adoration that was being heaped on him at this time last season.
"The fans, they've been pretty loyal to us, been loyal to me," said Reimer. "They're the ones that pay the money, they're the ones that deserve to have the guys try and play well in front of them—me included. If they feel I wasn't playing up to snuff and they want to give it to me, that's their right. ...
"I was a fan once too so it's all good."
The Toronto goaltender could hardly be faulted for allowing the game to get out of hand.
In fact, he made some solid saves early in the second period—denying Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera on odd-man rushes—to keep the Leafs in it. Reimer also turned away a couple chances just before Halpern extended the lead to 3-0 at 11:31.
Aucoin picked up his first of the season on a lovely tic-tac-toe passing play with Johansson and Ovechkin at 15:03 and the game was essentially over.
Toronto tried to mount an unlikely comeback in the third period—Armstrong picked up his first goal since Feb. 26, 2011 and Connolly banked a shot in from behind the net—but Neuvirth buckled down and secured the victory.
Boos rained down as the players skated off the ice.
"It's not Maple Leaf hockey," said defenceman John-Michael Liles. "We have to take it upon ourselves in this room. We've got the team to do it here, we've done it for a long time this season. It's a matter of getting back to how we're successful."
Notes: Mike Komisarek and Joey Crabb sat out for Toronto ... Matt Frattin had plenty of jump after being called up from the AHL Marlies ... The Caps continue to scratch veterans: 37-year-old defenceman Roman Hamrlik missed a third straight game while 39-year-old forward Mike Knuble sat out for the fifth time this month ... Ovechkin has 42 points (23-19) in 26 career games against Toronto ... Announced attendance was 19,577.