By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 12:00 AM
RALEIGH, N.C. - The Washington Capitals returned from a two-day holiday break hoping to reclaim a measure of momentum and the crux of their identity, oddly missing during an early December skid, as a potent offensive force.
They managed both on a rare, snow-covered night in Raleigh, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2, thanks largely to a key assist and subsequent goal from star forward Alex Ovechkin, who snapped an eight-game drought.
Ovechkin fed the puck to David Steckel for the go-ahead goal midway through the second period to put the Capitals ahead 2-1. Then, with a deft flick of the wrist, he sent a bouncing puck into the net for a long-awaited goal of his own with 1 minute 58 seconds remaining in the period.
Washington's Mathieu Perreault got the scoring going with an even-strength goal at 13:33 in the first period, but minutes later he was helped off the ice with a broken nose, unable to return, as a result of a brutal hit by the Hurricanes' Tim Gleason, who was ejected for his antics.
None of the Caps' goals was scored on a power play, a continuing source of concern.
But Coach Bruce Boudreau said he saw progress in his players' power-play effort. And that, too, is one measure of the momentum the Capitals so desperately seek, heading into the much anticipated clash with Pittsburgh in the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Heinz Field and into the heart of the hockey season beyond.
In their last game before taking the NHL-mandated holiday break, the Caps fell at home to Pittsburgh on Thursday in a 3-2 shootout loss.
"The good thing" about Sunday's victory, said defenseman Mike Green, "was that we didn't stray away mentally from what we did well at home against Pittsburgh. I felt like we had three or four minutes of the game where we had a lapse. But other than that, we played strong."
With Sunday's victory, the Capitals (21-12-5) swept their road series with the Hurricanes for the first time since 1997-98, when the former Hartford Whalers moved to Greensboro.
Ovechkin overcame his shooting slump. And Semyon Varlamov made an impressive return at goaltender, tapped to start after Michal Neuvirth, who had been instrumental in helping the Caps slough off their sub-par stretch earlier this month, experienced soreness after Sunday morning's skate.
Valamov had 33 saves in the game, including two terrific ones during back-to-back Carolina power plays in a frantic late effort in the third period.
"You just knew he was chomping at the bit because he hadn't played the last three games," Boudreau said. "I was expecting a big game."
With roughly six inches of snow falling in the Raleigh area before tapering off at mid-day, hundreds of flights were canceled at Raleigh-Durham Airport. The Caps made the trip without event via a charter plane. But with many local roads impassable, Carolina Hurricanes officials announced that ticket-holders who couldn't make it to the game could trade their tickets for another regular season contest. Nonetheless, on a treacherous Sunday that shuttered churches throughout North Carolina's Research Triangle, 10,477 showed up to cheer on the Canes.
Varlamov was under pressure early, with a shot clanging off the goal post and a barrage of shots coming in all directions.
Perreault started the scoring with assists by Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin.
Gleason was ejected for what appeared a cheap shot on Washington's Perreault, whose nose bled profusely from the contact. In the fracas that ensued, Washington's Matt Hendricks was called for roughing and sent off for two minutes as the period closed. By then the Caps had just eight shots on goal to Carolina's 16.
The Canes' Jussi Jokinen tied it at 1 midway through the second period.
The Caps struck back minutes later, with Steckel scoring his fourth goal of the season to put Washington out front, 2-1.
With the clock ticking down, Ovechkin snapped his goal-less spell, pumped both arms and pointed skyward before being smothered by teammates.
Carolina struck quickly in the third period, with Jay Harrison taking a huge whack at the puck, which skittered into the net courtesy of Tuomo Ruutu, who was credited with the goal.
The Caps then were forced to fend off back-to-back power plays. It was a nerve-rattling stretch, with a third Carolina puck bouncing off the goal post and Varlamov making a terrific save with an outstretched left mitt.
Washington had a second chance at a power-play goal with 3:55, but the Canes' Cam Ward (27 saves) fended off a pair of well struck attempts.
The Capitals return home to Verizon Center Tuesday for their final tuneup, against Montreal, before traveling to Pittsburgh for the Winter Classic at 1 p.m. New Year's Day.
Boudreau said that Perreault would be listed as "day to day" with a broken nose, his return dependent upon his breathing.