Capitals Lose Crucial Ground

Carolina's Eric Staal, left, collides with Alexander Semin. The Hurricanes registered four power-play goals.
Carolina's Eric Staal, left, collides with Alexander Semin. The Hurricanes registered four power-play goals. (By Karl B. Deblaker -- Associated Press)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C., Feb. 23 -- The Southeast Division championship wasn't awarded Saturday night at RBC Center.

But if Matt Cullen and the Carolina Hurricanes end up securing the title -- and a spot in the playoffs -- they might look back on their 6-3 victory over the penalty-prone Washington Capitals as the catalyst.

In what was likely the biggest game of the season for both teams, Cullen scored two of the Hurricanes' four power-play goals and registered an assist to help Carolina win for the fifth time in seven games -- and more importantly, open a six-point lead over the Capitals in the division standings.

"It means our games in hand are a little bit more important," Coach Bruce Boudreau said, referring to the fact that Washington has played three fewer games than Carolina. "Look, there's 20 games left. An awful lot can happen in 20 games. One week can turn things one way or another."

The Capitals came out with the desperation it takes to win games such as these, and they even took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission after goals by Mike Green and Alexander Semin.

But they fizzled in the second period under the strain of too many penalties, then Andrew Ladd and Joe Corvo each scored on rebounds in the third to send Washington to its fourth defeat in five games (1-2-2). Four of Carolina's goals, in fact, came on rebounds.

"We were soft in front of our net all night," Boudreau said. "They had second and third and fourth chances."

Kolzig said: "There was a lot of traffic in front of the net and [we] had a tough time trying to find that puck. It just seemed like they took advantage of every rebound. We have to learn to compete [with] more desperation in front of our net."

Perhaps it's a good thing that the Capitals don't have much time to stew over Saturday's result. They immediately headed back to Washington, where they will host the New Jersey Devils at 3 p.m. Sunday and the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.

"It's an uphill battle now," Kolzig said. "The thing about games in hand, you have to win them."

Kolzig was peppered with 42 shots, including 31 in the final 40 minutes. That was the highest number of shots yielded by the Capitals this season. Meantime, Cam Ward, Kolzig's counterpart in the Carolina net, faced 34 shots.

Alex Ovechkin set up all three Washington goals, ending his three-game streak without a point. But on a night when his teammates streamed into the penalty box (seven penalties total), and repeatedly failed to clear rebounds left sitting in front of the net, it wasn't nearly enough.

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