The Washington Capitals welcomed back their most accomplished player on Tuesday night in their first home game in more than two weeks, and left wing Alex Ovechkin certainly had his moments. There weren’t enough of them, however, from him or his teammates to prevent the Carolina Hurricanes from escaping with a 3-2 shootout victory before an announced crowd of 18,398 at Verizon Center.
The deciding goal came off the stick of right wing Tuomo Ruutu, who beat Washington goalie Semyon Varlamov with a backhand shot on the Hurricanes’ third attempt. Center Jeff Skinner had scored on Carolina’s opening try of the shootout, and in between, Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom failed to pierce goalie Cam Ward, who stopped 38 shots to help the Hurricanes secure two points in their desperate scramble to qualify for the playoffs.
The Capitals are facing no such anxiety, having locked up a spot in the postseason roughly one week ago. Washington, which lost for the first time in six home games, instead is trying to chase down Philadelphia for top position in the Eastern Conference while several players work their way back from ailments, the most notable of whom is Ovechkin.
The two-time Hart Trophy winner led the Capitals with five hits against Carolina and was tied for third with five shots in 19 minutes 20 seconds of ice time after missing the last three games with an undisclosed injury.
Also re-entering the lineup was second-line center Jason Arnott, who came to Washington in a Feb. 28 trade designed to add a veteran with valuable postseason experience. Back after missing all of the Capitals’ most recent six-game road trip with an undisclosed lower-body injury in addition to a groin ailment, Arnott played a little over 14 minutes and had three shots.
“We practiced with the team only one time, and we skated without the puck most of the time,” Ovechkin said of himself and Arnott. “In power play, we give so many chances to [Carolina] to score goals, like on the breakaway, we make some mistakes, but we come back, and it’s good when we come back. It’s good when you play that kind of game.”
A compelling second period featured the Capitals (44-22-11, 99 points) rallying from a 1-0 deficit thanks in large part to right wing Alexander Semin, who scored to tie and soon after assisted on center Marcus Johansson’s goal to put Washington in front. Then there was Varlamov’s clutch stop on a penalty shot that buoyed the Capitals’ spirit by preventing further damage.
The Hurricanes (36-30-10, 82 points), who trail Buffalo by three points for the eighth and final playoff slot in the East and beat Washington for the first time this season, had opened the scoring on left wing Jussi Jokinen’s power-play goal early in the period. Five minutes later, Carolina right wing Chad LaRose came charging in on Varlamov. Defenseman Dennis Wideman was trailing the play and got his stick around LaRose momentarily, prompting officials to issue a questionable penalty shot that Varlamov swept aside.
Moments later, Semin collected his 27th goal of the season by gathering the puck in the right corner, moving past Hurricanes center Eric Staal and lifting a shot over Ward’s shoulder into a window not much larger than a deck of cards. The assist went to Brooks Laich, who happened to be in the corner with Semin but appeared content moving aside and allowing his supremely skilled teammate do the rest.
With that goal fresh in Carolina’s collective consciousness, Semin gained possession off a turnover and immediately drew the attention of multiple defenders, including defenseman Joe Corvo, formerly with the Capitals, and left wing Drayson Bowman. That’s when Johnasson got the puck on his stick, skated in on Ward uncontested and tucked in his 13th goal of the season.
The lead, however, didn’t last long. Skinner made sure of that just minutes into the third period by separating himself just enough from defenseman Scott Hannan to whistle in a shot that Varlamov (24 saves) by all accounts should have stopped. Varlamov did redeem himself with several saves during the tense remainder of regulation, which included Semin taking a hooking penalty with 3:19 to play.
Washington managed to withstand that and force extra time in a game that was appropriately heated among Southeast Division adversaries who historically have had great distaste for one another. Underscoring that was a sequence in the second period in which Ruutu delivered a hit on Wideman, who was off balance before impact.
Wideman went off the ice for good after that blow, but Ovechkin took issue with the play and confronted Ruutu. With the players exchanging pleasantries, Ovechkin shoved Ruutu in the helmet with his left hand.
“I thought they came at us pretty good, but I thought we matched it fairly well for the first game coming home,” Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Alex and Arnie really hadn’t practiced too much, and I was a little worried about that, but I thought we were fine.”