Hurricanes 3, Capitals 1

-- Every obstacle was stacked against the Carolina Hurricanes tonight. Their playoff chances have evaporated, and their struggling former all-star goalie, Arturs Irbe, cleared waivers and was demoted to the minors. Players publicly challenged Coach Paul Maurice during a just-completed road trip and Carolina had won two games since Christmas. The Hurricanes, ravaged with injuries, are in the midst of a fire sale as top players are traded to playoff contenders.

None of that mattered during a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals at RBC Center tonight. The Capitals fell behind early and played like a downtrodden team, with the Hurricanes resembling a division front-runner. The Capitals failed to expand their Southeast Division lead over Tampa Bay, lost a division game for the first time since Dec. 1.

"We weren't ready to play," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "It's not so much being down 1-0, it's giving them the mind-set that they can beat you, because lately we've had their number. If we come out ready and show them we mean business I think it might be a different game. They're a team that's kind of reeling, but we give them life and they played well."

The Hurricanes, which had lost their three previous meetings with Washington, played with desperation from the start and the Capitals just hoped to make it to the second period. Goaltender Olaf Kolzig kept it close, gloving aside Jeff O'Neill's slap shot late in the opening period and pouncing on top of Jeff Daniels's rebound, but could not stop Craig Adams from scoring about seven minutes in.

Adams snatched the puck deep in his own zone and looked up at an alarmingly open ice surface -- "I was surprised how much room I had," Adams said -- gliding down the left wing and winding up without ever being touched. He aimed for the far corner and beat Kolzig with a tricky shot where the post and crossbar intersect. Carolina, one year removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, had netted the opening goal for just the fifth time in its last 31 games -- eliciting chants of "We scored first, we scored first" from a home crowd that had grown used to booing -- while Washington needed nearly 11 minutes to register its first shot of the game.

"We've got to play more intense right off the bat," winger Mike Grier said. "They have a lot of pride and character in that room. They lost a few guys and were missing a little bit of talent, but they made up for it with how hard they worked."

Carolina captain Ron Francis said: "We talked about it before the game and we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our fans to battle as hard as we can."

The Capitals mustered periodic scoring chances in the second period, but sustained nothing from one shift to the next. Goalie Kevin Weekes (30 saves) was caught behind the net early in the period, but slid before the vacant goalmouth in time to kick aside Jeff Halpern's shot. Robert Lang and Steve Konowalchuk took shots on a two-on-one but could not score, and Sergei Gonchar got the puck as far as the crease on a rebound before the whistle blew, stopping play.

"Obviously, we didn't finish as well as we'd like," Konowalchuk said.

Maurice got defensemen Aaron Ward and Bret Hedican on the ice whenever possible against Washington's top line, and they contained Jaromir Jagr for the most part. Jagr, who played only two minutes more than Washington's fourth-line wingers in the first period, got behind the defense midway through the game, but Weekes kicked aside his attempt to tuck the puck in the near side.

Jagr gets his best chances on the power play -- a major catalyst for this team -- but the Capitals had only one opportunity in the contest. The Hurricanes, 12-0-1-3 when leading after two periods, promptly put the game away early in the third period. Pavel Brendl carried the puck wide to the right and shuffled a pass beyond defensemen Jason Doig and Joel Kwiatkowski to the far side of the net, where Jan Hlavac tapped it in easily.

Michael Nylander scored a fluky goal for Washington with seven minutes to play, but there was no comeback and Jeff O'Neill's empty net goal concluded the scoring.

Capitals Notes: Nylander played his 287th straight game, dating from Nov. 14, 1999. That is second among active streaks to Toronto's Robert Svehla (357 games). . . . The Capitals are 11-3-2 against the Southeast. . . . Backup goalie Sebastien Charpentier is scheduled to make his first start since Jan. 18 on Saturday night in Florida. Kolzig has started 18 of the last 19 games. . . . Defenseman Calle Johansson turned 36 today. . . . Defensemen Rick Berry and Jean-Francois Fortin and forward Ivan Ciernik were healthy scratches.

Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes sprawls for a save against the Capitals' Jaromir Jagr in the second period.