LANDOVER -- An eight-day All-Star break from NHL action didn't change much in the Washington Capitals.
The Capitals, who struggled at a 2-2-1 pace entering the break, couldn't recapture their first-half magic and lost meekly to the New Jersey Devils, 5-2, last night at the Capital Centre before 16,483.
Washington had trouble in almost every phase of the game and fell behind by 5-0 at the end of the second period to the Devils.
Soviet rookies Valeri Zelepukin and Alexander Semak did most of the damage in the first two periods, combining for three goals and one assist to lead the assault on goaltender Mike Liut.
Zelepukin had two goals and one assist, and Semak had one goal.
Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer also scored goals for the Devils, who are closing in on the Capitals in the Patrick Division standings.
New Jersey (23-15-7) is eight games over .500 for the first time in the history of the franchise, and trails Washington (28-16-4) by seven points.
New Jersey is 7-2-2 in its past nine games.
Liut, who was replaced by Don Beaupre at the start of the third period, made some superb stops among his 19 saves, but he couldn't continue to fend off the attacking Devils, who had several wide-open shots from point-blank range.
The third New Jersey goal, scored by Zelepukin, was the only one that Liut might like to face over again. He had the puck in his glove but inadvertently knocked it over the goal line with his stick.
"I'd like to have that one back," said Liut. "I knocked it in the net. That goal hurt us the most and we never recovered."
Liut said the sluggish effort by the Capitals last night was typical of the team coming off breaks.
"We just haven't done well when we've had layoffs," said Liut. "We just don't seem to click well. But that isn't an excuse since all the other teams have layoffs."
However, Liut said he isn't concerned by the latest Washington skid that has cost it first place in the Patrick Division.
"We still have a good hockey club," he said. "We may have some rough spots but we'll pull out of it."
Dale Hunter and Dimitri Khristich scored goals for Washington in the third period, gaining a small measure of respect for the home team.
But Capitals coach Terry Murray said of the overall show: "It was not good. We had seven or eight days off to regroup and get ready for an important Patrick Division game and we didn't do it."
Murray said his team had too many turnovers in its zone and didn't play smart.
"Instead of dumping the puck in, we went the selfish route and tried to beat people one-on-one," said Murray. "The game is very simple, if you're outnumbered at the blue line you dump the puck in and hope for something good to happen."
Murray said New Jersey's fourth goal (a score by Lemieux off a pass from Zelepukin from behind the net) came as a result of a "missed assignment."
Washington played without defender Sylvain Cote who developed a case of the flu after the pre-game meal.
"I got a call and was told he was sick," said Murray. "We were flat and didn't play with any smartness. I put in Beaupre to give him a chance to come in and clean up and get ready for Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital Centre.]