By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007
RALEIGH, N.C., Jan. 18 -- It's just one victory. But considering how fragile the Washington Capitals' collective psyche had become, and how far they had slipped in the playoff hunt, the significance of Thursday's 5-2 win at Carolina was more than the points gained in the standings.
The Capitals arrived at RBC Center in danger of returning from a seven-day, four-game trip without a single standings point. Instead, they head home with an impressive triumph over the Stanley Cup champions and, more important, a small measure of confidence as the playoff push in the Eastern Conference intensifies.
"The way we look at it, every game from now on is a playoff game," winger Matt Bradley said. "Our signature is working hard, but for whatever reason we've got away from it a couple times this season. Hopefully we've figured out that we can't rely on just our skill. We have to work hard, too."
They got a little of both against the Hurricanes.
Alexander Semin scored twice, boosting his season total to 27. Semin is only two goals behind teammate Alex Ovechkin, who also scored. Chris Clark also netted a pair of goals, and goaltender Olie Kolzig was, at times, spectacular in stopping 34 shots, including 13 as the Hurricanes surged in the final minutes.
"It was important to win because we had played so well," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "It reassures our group that we can [compete] with the reigning Stanley Cup champions if you give a good effort, execute and play well."
Hurricanes Coach Peter Laviolette's postgame news conference, meantime, lasted only 36 seconds. "We were brutal," he snapped before eventually leaving the podium and slamming the door on his way out.
Laviolette was angry because his team had been outworked by the Capitals, who started strong, finished their checks and stayed out of the penalty box (they were whistled for only three infractions). But they also got some fortunate bounces, ones that had been going against them during the three-game slide.
After surrendering the first goal in each of the previous games on this trip, they dominated the opening 20 minutes and led 1-0 thanks to a goal scored when a Carolina player inadvertently put the puck into his own net.
Hurricanes defenseman David Tanabe reached high with his stick to knock down Clark's dump toward the corner. The puck tipped Tanabe's stick blade, sending it directly on net. That was a problem, because John Grahame (25 saves) already had vacated the crease to handle the puck, which instead rolled into an empty net at the 13-minute mark.
"The guys joked that Clark scored two beautiful goals and Semin fluked a couple," Hanlon joked.
Leaving the crease was Grahame's only misstep early. In fact, it could be argued that the Carolina goalie was the reason the Capitals' lead wasn't any bigger. He stopped 16 shots, including several from point-blank range.
In the second period, Grahame thwarted Capitals center Brian Sutherby on a semi-breakaway with a pad save, keeping the Hurricanes behind by just a goal. But Carolina defenseman Anton Babchuk hooked Sutherby on the play, drawing a penalty.
Just four seconds into the ensuing power play, Semin fired his trademark wrist shot over Grahame's glove for his first goal of the night and a 2-0 Capitals lead.
They took that two-goal edge into the third, but it almost wasn't enough. Carolina winger Erik Cole cut the Capitals' lead in half two minutes in, whacking a rebound past Kolzig.
Semin's second goal of the night, on a breakaway at 9 minutes 33 seconds of the third period, put the visitors ahead 3-1. But still, the Hurricanes wouldn't relent.
Eric Staal redirected a slap shot past Kolzig with 7:53 left to play, making it 3-2, and the Hurricanes continued to press for the equalizer, pulling Grahame in the final 1 1/2 minutes for an extra attacker.
Kolzig wouldn't allow it, and empty-net goals by Clark and Ovechkin clinched the critical win.
"I honestly believe this is going to go right down to April in our conference," Kolzig said. "We're all going through streaks. It's going to be about who minimizes the losing streaks. We found a way to hold this one to three."
Capitals Notes: Hurricanes defenseman Niclas Wallin suffered an undisclosed injury in the first period and did not return. . . . Capitals center Jakub Klepis was a healthy scratch. . . . Two of the Capitals' next three games also are against the Hurricanes. . . . Defenseman Mike Green (foot) missed the game and was replaced in the lineup by 20-year-old prospect Jeff Schultz, who was recalled from Hershey (Pa.) of the American Hockey League.