RALEIGH, N.C. — On a night when the Washington Capitals overloaded their first line with the most glittering talent the roster has to offer, it was the supporting cast that led the way to a win against the Carolina Hurricanes.
After trudging through the first period and giving up the first goal for the third straight game, Washington responded with a strong final 40 minutes en route to a 5-1 win over the Hurricanes on Friday night at RBC Center.
The resurgent effort was spearheaded by Matt Hendricks, Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble. After the game, teammate Jason Chimera said to the so-called fourth line: “You guys played like you were the first line.”
Halpern and defenseman John Carlson each recorded his first goal of the season, while rookie Cody Eakin followed his first career NHL point (an assist) with his first goal. Troy Brouwer added the game-winner after his playing status was questionable only hours earlier at the morning skate, and Michal Neuvirth made 24 saves in his first start since the season opener on Oct. 8, also a win against Carolina.
“We know it’s a conference game and the games are really important for us, and I think everybody play A-game tonight,” said veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who was one of five Capitals to finish the game with a plus-two rating. “Michal’s stepping up big-time and he hasn’t played for a long time and he was great. We give him some confidence, I think, in the second period and as the game went on we played better and better. The way we played tonight, I think we can surprise lots of teams and we can win more games.”
The Capitals (9-2-0) looked sluggish at the start and Carolina (5-5-3) jumped out to an early lead. With only 3 minutes 26 seconds elapsed in the contest, the Hurricanes went up 1-0 on a goal by Anthony Stewart, who redirected a point shot by Jay Harrison past Neuvirth.
Facing the one-goal deficit, it was the veteran fourth line that created the most sustained offensive-zone pressure. Hendricks split two Hurricanes around the midway point of the period and was ultimately stopped by Carolina netminder Cam Ward (27 saves) but it was Washington’s best opportunity of the game at that juncture.
“Just be upbeat on the bench, keep talking trying to get guys into it and just try to do everything we could to steal the momentum back,” Hendricks said. “We knew they were going to come out hard, they do it every time we play them. Carolina’s a good team. They came out and bit into us early. They were all over us and we got our composure back.”
The Capitals began to find their legs as the period drifted toward a close, peppering Ward with five point-blank shots on a power play before the first intermission. At the start of the second, the fourth line ultimately cracked the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
Knuble had two bang-bang chances on the right side of the post, the second of which bounced out to an empty space on the left side of the crease, where Halpern hustled and dove to knock the puck into the empty net and make it 1-1 just 1:28 into the period.
“Knoobs and Hendy were fantastic tonight digging pucks in the corner,” said Halpern, who was a healthy scratch in the previous game. “I thought the three of us did a good job of just holding on to pucks and being able to create off wearing them down a bit. As far as just getting back in the lineup, it’s fun just to play to be part of a win of a good win like that.”
Only 69 seconds later the Capitals took control of the contest when Brouwer put them up 2-1. On a rush up the left side, Marcus Johansson made a beauty of a pass to the right faceoff dot, where Brouwer needed only to chip the puck past Ward. The secondary assist on Brouwer’s goal went to Eakin, who gave himself additional reason to celebrate later in the contest.
Carlson scored to make it 3-1 just more than three minutes into the third with a rocket shot from the point on the power play. Eakin added some icing to the victory around the midway point of the final frame with a deft wrist shot that beat Ward’s blocker side for his first NHL goal. Backstrom made it 5-1 with just more than four minutes left in regulation.
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a fourth consecutive game with a twisted right ankle. The defenseman skated for roughly an hour Friday morning but it’s unlikely he will play on Saturday against the New York Islanders. . . . Mathieu Perreault and D.J. King were both healthy scratches.