With a bit of luck, the Washington Capitals would be on a three-game winning streak. A puck or two goes an inch in the other direction, and it finds the net rather than the post. A call or two goes their way, and they might have put away the Carolina Hurricanes tonight.
The Capitals played well enough to earn at least a point but fell, 3-2, to their division rivals at Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena. The Capitals (4-7-2) didn't blame referees Dave Jackson and Greg Kimmerly for the loss but questioned many rulings, including key sequences on Carolina's first goal and several incidents in the third period.
"I would definitely say part of the reason [for the loss] was the officials," goalie Olie Kolzig said. "They didn't have their 'A' game tonight. It wasn't the reason we lost, but it sure helped."
For the third straight game, the Capitals played a dominant third period. They were all over the puck and pinned Carolina deep, but could not erase a two-goal deficit. The Hurricanes won for the first time in their new arena.
Washington had to start the period with a flurry and did so, attacking in waves. Joe Sacco and Andrei Nikolishin won the puck off the boards. Chris Simon waltzed in and fed Sacco as he sliced through the crease. Sacco flicked the puck to his backhand and tucked it behind Arturs Irbe with about 17 minutes remaining in regulation for his first goal of the season and first as a Capital, making it 3-2.
Jan Bulis's line was relentless, creating chances every shift, tiring Carolina. Steve Konowalchuk's hustle drew a penalty. Bulis cranked a shot off the bottom of the crossbar. They produced several key draws in the Carolina zone, including one with about 40 seconds remaining. However, the Capitals felt additional time was run off the clock and complained to the officials, to no avail. And Sergei Gonchar was cut by a high stick late in the game that went undetected.
"That could have been huge for us," Kolzig said. "That late in the game you pull the goalie and it's a six-on-four. But they let it go."
What had the team most upset was Carolina's opening goal about five minutes in. Gary Roberts, in his first game back from a groin injury, charged to the net, bowled over Kolzig and was on top of him while players hacked away at the loose puck. Andrei Kovalenko eventually knocked it into the empty net. The referees, who are using a more lenient in-the-crease rule this season, explained to Washington Coach Ron Wilson that the goal was legal because Roberts had been pushed into the crease.
The Capitals believed otherwise.
"We played very well," Wilson said. "We got [robbed] on the first goal. I just don't like that explanation."
The Capitals tied the game about two minutes later when Gonchar found Glen Metropolit alone in front for an easy tap-in, giving the rookie three goals in three NHL games. Washington's penalty-killers, who have killed 25 straight penalties and 31 of 32 chances, kept the game tied, going 5 for 5 tonight. But the rest of their game wilted in the second period ("That's our nemesis right now," Kolzig said.)
The Hurricanes took the lead for good when center Ron Francis held the puck on the right side, drawing four Capitals his way, then passed cross-ice to defenseman Marek Malik, who found Bates Battaglia on the right post about six minutes into the second period. They went up 3-1 when Kolzig played the puck along the boards and Metropolit waited for it to reach him rather than going after it, allowing Kovalenko to get to it first and trigger Jeff O'Neill's rush to net with 1 minute 15 seconds left in the second period.
"That was my fault, totally," Metropolit said. "I was flat-footed when I should have gone to the puck."
One mea culpa was issued; it wasn't the one the Capitals were waiting for.
Capitals Notes: D Joe Reekie (foot), LW Yogi Svejkovsky (shoulder) and C Mike Eagles (healthy scratch) did not play. . . . Hurricanes winger Sami Kapanen, their leading scorer, left the game in the first period with a neck stinger and did not return. . . . Francis picked up his 1,049th assist, tying Gordie Howe for fifth all-time.