WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin hopped over the boards for the 26th time yesterday afternoon and Sean Couturier was on the ice waiting for him.
There were 56 seconds left. Steve Mason had the puck on his stick behind the net, ready to rim it around the boards.
"I didn't get much on it," Mason said. "A bad mistake."
His weak clearing attempt was pounced on by the Capitals' Joel Ward, who looked to pass to a waiting Mike Green at the point. By that time, Ovechkin raced in from the Capitals' bench at the far end of the ice and crossed the blue line.
Ward's pass was destined for Green. But Ovechkin swooped in and intercepted his own teammate. He was the one player-at the one time-the Flyers could least afford to have the puck.
In nearly any other sequence, not coming off a line change, Ovechkin would have been fleeced by Couturier. The two were never really more than a few feet away from each other on the ice, closely matched by Flyers coach Craig Berube. There was maybe one 20-second portion in the second period when Ovechkin skated freely without Couturier.
Even though the Flyers had allowed two goals in the previous 8 minutes, if they could have escaped the final minute without a goal, no one would have remembered that in April when the final standings are tabulated.
But by the time Ovechkin's shot hit the twine with 48.7 seconds left, sending the 18,506 at Verizon Center into a frenzy, the fury already had been unleashed.
The Flyers' three-goal lead evaporated almost as quickly as Peter Laviolette's three-game tenure this season. Ovechkin just provided the final burn with his game-tying goal that resulted in a mind-blowing, 5-4 shootout loss.
The Flyers led 4-1 with 8:41 to play in the third period. In many ways, their collapse was more embarrassing than their 7-0 beating from the Capitals on Nov. 1.
"We stopped playing," defenseman Mark Streit said. "We got that lead and we're all over those guys with good forechecking and being smart with the puck. Then we relaxed. We stopped playing and we're in our end a lot. We couldn't get pucks out."
It would have been hard to believe that in the first 50 minutes, the Flyers played one of their cleanest games of the season. Their first line clicked, combining for six points behind a three-point game from Michael Raffl. Mason was strong in net, as usual. And Couturier kept Ovechkin mostly in check.
Then they crumbled. The Flyers were outshot, 16-8, in the final period. Their one point in the standings was hardly consolation; the division-rival Capitals, a team they're chasing, skated off with a cheap two.
"We played good hockey for 45 minutes and then we got loose," defenseman Nick Grossmann said. "We didn't play an assertive way. As soon as they score one goal, you can't skate around and worry. There was still a chance in overtime or the shootout."
By then, the Flyers were fried mentally. It was not all that different from their late-game collapse in Carolina on Nov. 5: they blew it in the final minute and were too stunned to salvage the extra point. With the loss, the Flyers fell to 1-3 in the shootout. Washington improved to a league-best 8-3 in the breakaway skills competition.
"We were in our end too much at the end instead of making plays," Berube said. "You've got to make plays and keep attacking, keep playing, keep putting pucks on net and pressure in their end. We didn't do that. We got back on our heels a little bit. We need to press the issue a little more with the lead."
Streit said it was too early to tell whether the extra-point lost to the Capitals will cost the Flyers. Until Ovechkin's tying goal, against a team that has erased a three-goal lead three times this season, the Flyers seemed to be in disbelief they could lose. Their season might soon feel the same fate with each passing debacle.
"We're a pretty good hockey team the way we can play out there," Streit said. "You saw that for most of the game. But on the other hand, we showed a different face."
The Capitals beat the Flyers in three key phases of the game: hits (29-21), shots (33-28) and faceoffs (40-29) . . . The Flyers were whistled for two delay-of-game penalties, giving them 10 on the season . . . Yesterday marked Washington's 200th consecutive sellout . . . Mark Streit's second-period goal was the 300th point of his career . . . Alex Ovechkin's first-period power-play goal was his 12th of the season, more than any Flyer has at any strength.