Capitals' Lead in Southeast Division Shrinks to Four Points with Loss to Hurricanes

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C., Dec. 7 -- Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau had plenty of reason to be steamed after Sunday's 3-1 loss to Michael Leighton and the Carolina Hurricanes.

There were the Capitals' multiple missed opportunities in the offensive end, including an unsuccessful penalty shot attempt by Alex Ovechkin. And there were the many miscues in the defensive zone, including a costly turnover by Sami Lepisto that led to Eric Staal's winning goal in the final minutes.

But what had Boudreau most upset was the opportunity his team had just blown at RBC Center. With a win in regulation, the Capitals could have taken a commanding eight-point lead in the Southeast Division with a third of the season completed. Instead, the Hurricanes whittled the lead to four points.

"That's why I'm so frustrated," Boudreau said. "That would have been [a big lead] with [16] road games done and [12] home games done. With the injuries we had, it was time for guys to start coming back and getting healthy. I thought we would have been in good position. Now it's a dogfight again."

It didn't have to be. Leighton stopped all 27 shots he faced in the first 40 minutes and appeared to be on his way to a shutout when the Hurricanes ran into penalty trouble in the third period.

Nicklas Backstrom one-timed a pass from Ovechkin past Leighton on the power play to knot the score at 1 with 11 minute 32 seconds remaining. But instead of cranking up the pressure on Leighton, who was starting in place of the ailing Cam Ward (groin muscle pull), the Capitals imploded at the other end.

Lepisto, one of six minor league call-ups in the lineup because of injuries, lost his edge, and in the process, lost a battle behind the Washington net. He surrendered the puck to Sergei Samsonov, who dished to Staal.

Staal stepped in front and jammed the puck between goaltender José Theodore (22 saves) and the post to restore Carolina's lead, 2-1, with 4:09 left to play. It was Staal's first goal in eight games and marked only the second game in the past 16 that he's scored.

"In the NHL you can't make dumb plays against good players," Boudreau said of Lepisto's misstep. "That's what happened. Sami shouldn't have tripped over his feet."

Lepisto, who along with defensive partner Bryan Helmer was on the ice for all three goals against, said: "I can't fall like that. I tried to battle with the puck behind the net. Then I didn't know where the puck was and all of a sudden it was in the goal."

Ray Whitney's second goal of the night came with 2:02 remaining and clinched the win, the Hurricanes' first since the return of Paul Maurice as coach and first over the Capitals in five games. Whitney plucked the puck from a mess of skates and sticks in the slot and snapped it past Theodore, who has dropped his past two starts.

"That was the one that kind of bothered me," Theodore said, before assessing Staal's goal as so: "I saw it for a second, but then they made a quick pass [from behind the net]. By the time I picked it up, it was too late."

Theodore's Carolina counterpart, meantime, was outstanding. Leighton stopped 38 shots, none of them bigger than the one he made on Ovechkin's penalty shot attempt late in the second period.

Ovechkin (11 shots on goal) was killing a penalty when he scooped up a loose puck in the Capitals' end and raced in the other direction. But before the reigning MVP could get off a shot, he was hauled down by Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen. Ovechkin skated wide on the penalty shot, faked forehand-backhand-forehand, but was stuffed by a Leighton pad save.

Ovechkin has 177 career goals in three plus seasons, but he is 0 for 5 on penalty shots.

The save preserved Carolina's 1-0 lead, which came on a rebound that kicked back through the slot onto Whitney's stick. Theodore had stopped Pitkanen's shot from the point.

The Caps were without eight players who started the season on the roster, including stars Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov.

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