RALEIGH, N.C. — The lights were on, seats were filled and bona fide NHL players were skating around the ice at PNC Arena. But there were no intentionally blocked shots, no fights and only a few players who showed genuine interest in a regular season game that felt like one in name only.
The Washington Capitals emerged with their third straight victory Thursday night, beating the Carolina Hurricanes, 5-2, in a contest that will have no bearing on how this franchise proceeds after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
All three members of Washington’s most consistent line tallied goals, netminder Braden Holtby stopped 36 of 38 shots and a team that spent most of this season underachieving put together a three-game winning streak for the second time in less than a month. Except it mattered little considering the Capitals’ faint postseason hopes ended Wednesday.
The backdrop to Thursday night’s game was unlike any Washington has experienced the past seven years. The Capitals knew they were playing out the string, and so did Carolina, which learned it would miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the eighth time in 10 seasons Tuesday after a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers.
Washington spent the morning coming to grips with reality; the team was mostly silent during a pregame skate. Coach Adam Oates gave a speech about “being a pro” and playing hard for the fans who paid money to watch them. And the Capitals responded with a performance in which they seemed to care just a bit more than the Hurricanes, who were playing their final home game of the season.
The half-empty atmosphere at PNC Arena reflected the stakes in what amounted to an exhibition for these former Southeast Division rivals. Neither team appeared interested in getting injured with so little on the line, and hits were kept to a minimum.
“It was kind of missing that edge, that bite you would normally get in a game,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I’m sure their dressing room was the same as ours: pretty quiet, not as much of the rallying of the troops. It’s tough to play in that, but it was at times fun. You’re holding on to the puck a little bit longer. You’re making plays that you wouldn’t necessarily make.”
It didn’t take long for the Capitals to take a lead, and the first goal of the night came from the work of a trio that has been one of the team’s few bright spots.
Just 62 seconds into the contest, forward Jason Chimera’s strong forecheck forced Carolina defenseman Jay Harrison into a turnover behind his own net. Center Eric Fehr quickly retrieved the loose puck and fed wing Joel Ward with a nifty backhanded pass in front of the goal mouth, and he out-maneuvered helpless Hurricanes goalie Anton Khudobin to deposit his 24th.
Chimera and Washington’s third line were also in the middle of the team’s next goal, which doubled the Capitals’ advantage midway through the second period. This time, Chimera and Ward combined to pressure Hurricanes blue-liner Brett Bellemore, and Chimera promptly worked his way along the goal line to beat Khudobin for his 15th goal.
Chimera, Fehr and Ward combined for three goals and nine points, although Ward could take no solace in that.
“You’re playing for nothing, and we got . . . [two] more games like that. I don’t even know,” he said. “It just [stinks] it doesn’t really mean nothing.”
Washington’s vaunted power play ensured the Capitals would not keep Carolina off the scoreboard. The Hurricanes cut their deficit in half when forward Jordan Staal found teammate Jordan Tlusty on a short-handed two-on-one breakout that left Holtby hung out to dry.
But after watching so many opponents kill their momentum after goals this season, the Capitals did the same to the Hurricanes with a beautiful sequence of passes.
With just 35.1 seconds remaining in the second period — and just more than two minutes after Tlusty’s goal — Alzner kept a Carolina clearing attempt in the offensive zone, passed cross ice to center Marcus Johansson, who then found forward Troy Brouwer for a one-timer that gave the Capitals a 3-1 lead.
Fehr then got in on the fun with a goal just more than two minutes into the third period, and Brouwer added his 25th goal — on a one-timer from the slot — less than a minute later. It put to rest any drama on a night the Capitals already had begun to forget moments after the final buzzer.
“It’s unfortunately one of those games. There’s not much else to say,” Alzner said. “It was the third-to-last game of the season. I guess that’s the only way to put it.”