RALEIGH, N.C. — Two days after multiple players questioned the Washington Capitals’ effort and willingness to fight back, they found themselves in another test of their collective mettle.
Washington trailed by two goals within the first nine minutes at PNC Arena on Thursday night against the same Carolina Hurricanes that dealt the Caps a decisive loss earlier in the week, leading to the crisis of confidence. The stakes were high — another loss could have caused even more damage to the Capitals’ postseason hopes, and all but eliminated them from the Southeast Division race — but this time they responded.
Fourth-liner Joey Crabb and superstar winger Alex Ovechkin scored to tie the game. Then, desperate to prevent Carolina from a point and with the clock approaching the final two minutes, Ovechkin sprung free on a breakaway. His shot hit the post, but Mike Ribeiro knocked the loose rebound just barely over the goal line for the decisive score and a 3-2 victory.
“I thought like, ‘Jesus, like please. Just goes in somehow’ and it went in,” said Ovechkin, who recorded his 700th career point in the contest. “It’s kind of disappointed for me like I can shoot easily for second goal but right now the kind of position we are it doesn't matter if me or Ribs score, it's huge two points for us.”
Washington (11-14-1) sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 23 points, seven back of eighth-place Winnipeg for the final postseason berth; the Caps are eight behind the division-leading Hurricanes with 22 games to play.
“That's huge. With this schedule you can’t afford to go four or five games without a point or a win, especially in our position,” said Aaron Volpatti, who set up Crabb’s second-period goal to kick-start the comeback. “It doesn't matter how we did it. We got it done and it'll be big for us here.”
It took a little while for the Capitals to get to the point that they were whooping it up in the visitors’ tunnel here as they came off the ice, though. Within the first 74 seconds of the game, Carolina jumped ahead.
The Hurricanes’ top line hemmed Washington deep in its own zone, winning races to loose pucks and generally outhustling the visitors. Former Capitals winger Alexander Semin outworked Marcus Johansson below the goal line, shoving the 22-year-old Swede into the back of the net before making his way out in front where he was in perfect position receive the puck and fire a shot past Michal Neuvirth to make it 1-0.
Neuvirth, who was making his first start since Feb. 7, finished with 36 saves.
Carolina continued to dominate the opening frame, swarming the offensive zone. With 8 minutes 17 seconds gone in the period, Patrick Dwyer deflected a point shot by Tim Gleason in the high slot to make it 2-0 Carolina.
The more damaging event for Washington came in between the tallies. Tomas Kundratek left the game with an apparent right leg injury with 7:49 gone in the first after Carolina forward Jeff Skinner fell on him. Kundratek will not travel with the team to Boston, Coach Adam Oates said, instead returning to Washington for an MRI exam.
It marked the second time in the past four games that Washington’s beleaguered blue line, which is already without Mike Green (groin) and John Erskine (left hand/wrist), lost a defenseman to injury mid-game. But led by newcomer Steve Oleksy, who finished with a game-high 27:55 of ice time, the Capitals’ defense withstood the strain.
For as ugly a first period as it was for the Capitals, they showed plenty of fight when they came out for the second. Buzzing around the offensive zone finishing checks and threatening to score, it was the fourth line that cashed in.
Volpatti sent a smooth centering pass to Crabb, who redirected the puck past Ellis to cut the Capitals’ deficit to 2-1 with just 5:56 gone in the middle frame. It was an important contribution from two players who sat out as healthy scratches on Tuesday.
“Big goal, huge goal for us, right? Because the game had kind of leveled out and we needed something,” Oates said. “It gave us a lot of life and we got through the second period just down one.”
With Carolina captain Eric Staal in the box for high sticking Tom Poti at the start of the third, Ovechkin evened things up. Hurricanes goaltender Dan Ellis (22 saves) stopped an initial shot by Nicklas Backstrom on the power play but poked the puck out to Troy Brouwer in the slot. Rather than shoot himself, Brouwer passed to the left circle where a wide-open Ovechkin blasted a shot home to tie the game at 2 with just 1:01 gone in the period.
From there it was up to the Capitals to find a way to capture the win in regulation. When Ovechkin raced across the blue line alone it seemed like a done deal, but the puck clanked low off the post and caromed into the blue paint around a scrambling Ellis. Ribeiro arrived in front of the net, creating a ruckus as he managed to jam the puck over the line with just 2:16 remaining.
The referee behind the cage signaled a goal but the Capitals had to wait another two minutes for the video review crew to confirm it and send them out of Carolina with a valuable win.
“I wasn’t sure, going to the bench. It happened so quick. I actually missed my shot there but the video don’t lie,” Ribeiro said. “We’ll take that.”