An unhappy Alex Ovechkin is met by Nicklas Backstrom after the Capitals captain misses a shot in the final minute of overtime. (Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST)

The Hurricanes began the night among the most desperate teams in the league, trailing Buffalo by five points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. When Tuomo Ruutu beat goalie Semyon Varlamov in the shootout, the Hurricanes had moved within three points of the Sabres and dealt Washington its first defeat after five consecutive home victories.

The Capitals, meantime, lamented the loss but welcomed back left wing Alex Ovechkin and center Jason Arnott. Ovechkin missed the final three games of Washington’s six-game road trip while Arnott did not travel at all. Both players were out with undisclosed injuries.

“All the guys just got to keep playing like we have the last games,” said center Marcus Johansson, referring to the Capitals’ prosperous trip in which they picked up eight points. “Keep playing with responsibility, and [Ovechkin and Arnott] will take care of their stuff and just bring more strength and skill to the team.”

Ovechkin and Arnott came back just in time for a game that had a playoff feel. There was plenty of hard hitting and not many scoring chances. There was fine goaltending from Carolina’s Cam Ward, and there was an opportunity for the Capitals perhaps to gain ground on Philadelphia for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Washington did rally from a 1-0 deficit in the second period thanks to a goal by right wing Alexander Semin and another by Johansson for a 2-1 advantage. But center Jeff Skinner tied the game early in the third with his 27th goal before Washington was able to kill off a man-down situation with 3 minutes 19 seconds to play, the result of Semin being called for hooking in the neutral zone.


“They got to do whatever they can,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said of the Hurricanes. “But on our end, we got to do what we got to do. We’ve got to be able to compete and beat any team that’s going to come hard because everyone is going to be fighting for their lives.”

The loss also figures to re-ignite the debate about which goalie combination gives Washington the best chance in the playoffs. Varlamov made 24 saves, but the tying goal came on a shot by all accounts he should have stopped.

Varlamov does, however, own the most playoff experience among the team’s trio of goalies that also includes Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, who was reassigned to Hershey on Sunday following another promising NHL call-up.

Holtby appeared in 14 games, posting a 10-2-2 record with two shutouts, a 1.79 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. Varlamov fell to 10-9-5 with a 2.24 GAA and a .923 save percentage. Neuvirth is 24-11-4 with four shutouts, a 2.46 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

“I don’t want to get down on our goalies,” Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked about Skinner’s equalizer. “They’ve been very good. They’ve allowed us to have a bad goal. We should be able to pick them up if that’s the case.”