RALEIGH, N.C. — The Washington Capitals came into Friday night's game at PNC Arena knowing the fine detail of their play had started to blur during the two-game skid that accompanied them on their flight south. They still entered leading the NHL in points, but there were concerns.
The victory, of course, contained late drama. Washington entered the final period leading 2-0 and grew the margin to 4-1 before Carolina trimmed the deficit to one goal with 7:25 remaining on a power-play goal from Ryan Dzingel. The Hurricanes continued to press, peppering Ilya Samsonov (38 saves), but could not get an equalizer.
The Capitals improved to 28-9-5 (61 points); the Hurricanes dropped to 24-15-2 (50 points). Washington became the first team to hit the 60-point mark in a season for the first time in franchise history, and the win avenged a 6-4 loss to Carolina in Raleigh last week.
Samsonov continues to be a bright spot in a season packed with them. He improved to 11-2-1 overall and 8-0-0 on the road and has a 2.18 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. He has won his past six starts and is the only goaltender in NHL history to win the first eight road starts of his career.
“Outstanding, gave up some goals, but he was no question the first star tonight,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “Really solid in the first. I liked our start in the first, and we are doing some good things. And then we take penalties, which allowed them to get some momentum, and he was really sharp. So definitely the difference-maker tonight.”
Carolina’s Jordan Staal started the action-packed third period with a deflection past Samsonov just 39 seconds in.
Less than two minutes later, Lars Eller scored the Capitals’ second power-play goal of the night to push the margin back to two goals at 3-1. Less than two minutes after that, Jakub Vrana ended a 10-game goal drought by converting a smooth feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov to push the lead to 4-1. All 16 of Vrana’s goals this season have come at even strength, which is tied for fifth in the NHL.
Carolina wasn’t done, however. Teuvo Teravainen scored on the power play at 6:35 and Dzingel struck a few minutes later to pull the hosts within one.
“We were fortunate to be ahead 2-0 in the game [entering the third] because of some of the saves Samsonov had made,” Reirden said. “But that being said, we converted on our chances, converted on our opportunities. And the second half of the season, it ramps up and emotion gets higher, especially a rival that Carolina has become for us.”
The win was the first in three meetings against the Hurricanes. Last week’s loss came with Tom Wilson and Michal Kempny out with injuries. Both played Friday night.
And while the Capitals had their whole lineup at their disposal at the beginning of the game, they lost fourth-line center Nic Dowd in the second period when he was assessed an automatic 10-minute misconduct for throwing Andrei Svechnikov’s stick over the glass and into the crowd.
Despite playing one man short on the bench, Washington scored the first two goals in the middle frame. First was Richard Panik’s fifth goal of the season at 2:58 on a rebound of his own shot that bounded off the pad of goaltender Petr Mrazek. It was his second goal in the past three games.
Kuznetsov tallied a power-play goal with an easy backdoor tap in off a feed from John Carlson at 5:07 of the second. It was Kuznetsov’s 16th goal of the season and his fourth goal in three games. Kuznetsov now has back-to-back multi-point games, with four goals and two assists over his past four outings.
The Capitals outshot Carolina 14-8 in the second and killed off two power plays. The penalty kill unit went 4 for 6 on the night.
“Tonight, we stayed strong,” Eller said. “Even though we didn’t get a goal early, we didn’t get a goal into the second, when we were down to three centers, we did a good job of being patient with the game plan and not starting to force things and did exactly what we talked about and got rewarded.”
Reirden said he wanted to get Samsonov into Friday night’s game to give the Hurricanes a different look and to make sure the Capitals weren’t sitting Samsonov for too long between starts. Before Friday, Samsonov’s last start was Dec. 27 in a 2-1 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
With the Capitals unable to get out of their own zone in the scoreless first frame, Samsonov sparkled, making 18 saves.
“He played unbelievable,” Eller said. “But we’ve been seeing that almost every night it’s like that. I think he has surpassed all expectations you think of as a young rookie goaltender, and it’s not easy. Sometimes you don’t play for two weeks, and he comes in and delivers. I can’t think of a game that he didn’t play well. It’s a luxury to have two goalies like we have.”
The Capitals managed only seven shots on goal in the first period against Mrazek, but nearly all were high-danger opportunities. Washington finished the game with 29 shots on goal.