I’ll take that: Carolina’s Elias Lindholm steals the puck from Washington’s T.J. Oshie during Thursday night’s 3-1 Hurricanes win at Capital One Arena. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

After their 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals were left with one question: What constitutes possession of the puck?

A tied game in the third period boiled down to a goal on a delayed penalty, but the Capitals were confused as to why the play wasn't blown dead. Capitals forward Tom Wilson crunched Carolina's Derek Ryan into the glass. A penalty was called as Ryan fell to the ice and clutched at his helmet. The Hurricanes had possession, so goaltender Scott Darling skated to the bench for an extra attacker.

Carolina's Justin Faulk had a snap shot go off goaltender Braden Holtby's blocker, and then Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik made contact with the puck, batting it into the air with his stick. Once possession changes to the offending team, play is supposed to cease, and the penalized player is then sent off.

But in the moment, the referee didn't judge Orpik's contact with the puck as a change in possession, so play continued. Victor Rask then scored the game-winning goal from the left faceoff circle, lifting Carolina to a 2-1 lead with 9:06 left in regulation.

An empty-net goal from Sebastian Aho in the final two minutes sealed the result, snapping a 10-game home winning streak and a five-game winning streak overall. Washington will get a rematch with the Hurricanes on Friday in Raleigh, N.C., but on Thursday night, the Capitals were left unsatisfied with the explanation — or lack thereof — on Rask's goal.

"A few of us kind of froze because we all thought the play was going to be over," Orpik said.

The Capitals argued that if the puck had gone over the glass after making contact with Orpik's stick, it would have been a delay-of-game penalty on Orpik. The goal also was unassisted, so if Orpik never had possession of the puck, then why didn't Faulk at least get an assist because Rask's goal technically came off his rebound?

"They didn't really want to give us an explanation, and they moved on pretty quickly," Orpik said. "A lot of us were pretty frustrated with it."

Said Coach Barry Trotz: "That's a tough one. I'm going to ask the referees because I didn't get an explanation. I didn't think we had control, but the puck's up in the air, and if Brooks plays it — you know, he hit it — and if it goes out into the stands, it means he had control and we would have another penalty. That one's tough because it's in the air. And under the rule, it can't sort of go both ways, so technically that would be control. It just doesn't look like control."

Even with the questionable ruling, several Capitals felt they ultimately didn't deserve to win, outworked by a hungrier team trying to climb the standings. Less than two minutes after Rask's goal, Klas Dahlbeck was called for slashing T.J. Oshie, giving Washington a power-play opportunity. With a chance to draw even, the Capitals didn't register a shot on goal. Holtby went to the bench for the extra attacker with 1:46 left, and Carolina's empty-netter followed shortly thereafter.

Neither team scored in the first period, and a power-play opportunity in the second frame ultimately worked against the Capitals. One wrinkle in Washington's man-advantage is to switch defenseman John Carlson and left wing Alex Ovechkin, moving Ovechkin to the point and Carlson to the left faceoff circle, where he shoots one-timers. But after the two swapped spots, Carlson's errant pass to Ovechkin at the point was intercepted by Carolina's Jordan Staal. On the breakaway, he beat Holtby five-hole to lift the Hurricanes to an early lead.

"A little bit we did to ourselves," Trotz said.

Center Lars Eller answered before second intermission, scoring with a one-timer from the high slot with 3:55 remaining. That marked his third goal in as many games, giving him eight through 43 games when he had just 12 all of last season. He now has 20 points, five shy of his 81-game total last year.

While the Capitals have a four-point lead atop the Metropolitan Division, the Hurricanes entered the game as one of three teams clustered at the bottom of it, yet just one point out of a playoff spot. Beating Washington moved Carolina ahead of Pittsburgh for the second wild-card position with 48 points now.

"It's always disappointing when we lose at home," Eller said. "But today we didn't deserve much better. . . . They just worked a little harder than us."