By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
It was, without question, the franchise's most significant game in five years. And from Alex Ovechkin to Matt Cooke, the Washington Capitals treated it as such.
In a contest that featured all of the intensity of a playoff game, the Capitals seized control early last night and thumped the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, to buoy their hopes of earning a spot in the playoffs. The win, which came before a raucous, red-clad sellout crowd at Verizon Center, was the Capitals' ninth in 10 games and gave them their first five-game winning streak since March 2001.
More important, it pulled them even with the Hurricanes in the race for the Southeast Division title. Washington and Carolina each have two games remaining, but the Capitals must finish with more points to beat out the Hurricanes, who hold the tiebreaker.
"We have two more games that are going to be tough to win," said goaltender Cristobal Huet, who was outstanding when tested in stopping 21 shots. "Not everything is in our hands -- yet. We just have to do our job and continue playing the way we did the last two weeks."
The Capitals also moved closer to the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, pulling within a point of idle Boston and Philadelphia.
But they may have to press on without a key part of their recent success. Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn left the game after being checked by Jeff Hamilton late in the first period, leaving the Capitals with five defensemen for most of the game. Team officials would only classify the injury as "upper body," though Morrisonn appeared to be favoring his shoulder. He is scheduled to be reevaluated today.
But even short-handed, the Capitals were not going to be denied. Ovechkin, Cooke, Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin each scored, and Huet made sure the Capitals stayed ahead with several spectacular stops. Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov also chipped in with a pair of assists in a game that could have been decided by a wider margin if not for Cam Ward's heroics in the Carolina net. Ward finished with 35 saves.
"The first six minutes went so fast I could barely keep up," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It was an extremely intense game. Both teams could tell what was at stake."
Huet added: "To be with them at 90 points, to put pressure on other teams, is huge. Tonight was a turning-point game, I think. Without this win, we would pretty much be out."
It was likely the biggest game for the Capitals since their last trip to the playoffs in 2002-03. They came into the game knowing a loss would all but eliminate them from postseason consideration. For Carolina, the math was much simpler. With a victory in regulation, they would have clinched their fourth division title in nine seasons.
But from the opening faceoff, it was obvious the Capitals were not going to let them get it. Not easily, anyway.
From the outset, their passes were crisper than Carolina's. They were operating at a higher speed. And they certainly were hitting harder. The play of Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Green, Tom Poti and Cooke especially stood out as the Capitals out-shot the Hurricanes 14-6 in the first period.
Washington's domination turned into something tangible at the 15-minute mark, when Cooke flicked a long rebound from the slot between Ward and the goal post to put the Capitals ahead 1-0. The goal set off the loudest celebration of the season.
"I thought it was the loudest I ever heard a building," Boudreau said.
But the Capitals knew it wasn't enough -- and their play reflected that.
Laich cut to the net, then backhanded a slick pass on the power play from Tomas Fleischmann off the wall with 59 seconds remaining in the first period to put the Capitals up 2-0.
Early in the second period, Carolina's Scott Walker dived headfirst into the crease after a loose puck and jammed it past Huet to make it 2-1. But that's as close as Huet would let the Hurricanes get.
Semin stretched the lead to 3-1, taking advantage of another power play at 14:28 of the second. Then Ovechkin scored his 63rd goal with 3:36 left to equal the most goals scored in a season by a left wing, pulling even with Luc Robitaille (1992-93). Ovechkin gathered a loose puck in the slot, turned and fired it past Ward to clinch the win.
For the next two minutes, he was serenaded by the crowd with chants of "M-V-P!"
"The atmosphere was great," Green said. "I have never seen a building like that. I have never seen the building like that. But we haven't done anything yet, and we know how important these next few games are."
Capitals Notes: Russian national coach Slava Bykov and assistant Igor Zakharkin were in attendance, presumably to scout Sergei Fedorov, Ovechkin, Viktor Kolzov and Semin ahead of the world championships in Canada May 2-19. . . . Carolina forwards Ray Whitney (ankle) and Justin Willliams (knee) returned to the lineup after lengthy absences, but Williams left the game in the first period with a torso injury.