By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009; D01
Many of the Washington Capitals heard the stunning news on their way into Verizon Center, or upon arriving, giving them little time to digest the fact that two popular teammates -- one being their captain -- had been dealt away.
And the distraction caused by the trade that sent Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina to Columbus for Jason Chimera couldn't have been more apparent in the opening minutes.
Hockey's best first-period team allowed three goals in the first 14 minutes 30 seconds and never could catch up to the NHL-worst Carolina Hurricanes, who held on for 6-3 victory before an antsy capacity crowd.
Eric Staal (two goals, three assists) and the Hurricanes began the night 29 points behind Washington in the standings, but they snapped a three-game losing streak and handed their Capitals their first loss in the Southeast Division all season.
"I don't know if it did or it didn't, [but] usually we're a lot better in the first period," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I don't want to use it as an excuse. But I've been in that situation, and it can bother some people. I don't know if it did with our guys, even if it was a two great guys who were leaving."
The Hurricanes, the lightest scoring team in the league, struck three times on their first nine shots on José Theodore (20 saves) to jump to a 3-0 lead in what might have been the ugliest period of hockey in Washington this season. The Capitals, meantime, mustered only four shots on Carolina goalie Cam Ward (28 saves) in the opening 20 minutes.
"It's a hard situation for us because we lost our captain and a great guy," said Alex Ovechkin. "They're both good players, but it's a business and you can't do nothing about it."
Ovechkin scored his 26th goal of the season on the power play 1:22 into the third period to cut the Capitals' deficit to 4-3 and put the already jittery Hurricanes on edge. Moments later, Washington killed off a short-handed situation of its own. But instead of pulling even, Sergei Samsonov put the game out of reach with the Hurricanes' fifth goal on 22 shots. He beat Theodore on the short side from deep in the faceoff circle with 10 minutes left.
Theodore, who was making his first start since a loss Dec. 18 in Vancouver, needed a strong performance now that his playing time is being challenged by not only Semyon Varlamov but Michal Neuvirth. The veteran goalie didn't get much help from his teammates, but he didn't endear himself to Boudreau, either.
"I thought his rebound control could have been better," Boudreau said. "I thought he was going to be a little defiant and that he really wanted it. But I thought he fought the puck a little bit at the end. Once the first two goals went by him, I thought his confidence [suffered]. But at no time was I thinking about pulling him."
It might not have made a difference anyway on a night that couldn't have gotten off to a more miserable start.
With both Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green in the penalty box, Tuomo Ruutu finished off a two-man advantage for the Hurricanes at 7:44, firing a loose puck in the slot past Theodore with only four seconds remaining on the penalty to Green. Less than three minutes later, a wide-open Staal snapped a bouncing crossing pass from Matt Cullen past Theodore to make it 2-0.
It got worse.
Jussi Jokinen shot a loose puck over Theodore to make it 3-0, which is how the first period ended. It marked only the second time all season the Capitals trailed by more than one goal after 20 minutes (both times have come against Carolina).
In the second period, Green cut the Capitals' deficit to 3-1 only 71 seconds in with a point shot that changed directions in front. But Brandon Sutter fired a juicy rebound past Theodore moments later.
Eric Fehr scored a fluky goal that Ward never saw midway through the second period and the Capitals began the third period on the power play. Just as a two-man advantage expired 72 seconds in, Ovechkin ripped a one-timer past Ward's blocker to make it 4-3. But that's as close as the Capitals could get.
"They kept pushing and they scored three [first-period] goals," Ovechkin said. "I don't think we stopped playing. But it's hard to come back when you're losing by three goals."