Since taking over as head coach of the Capitals, Dale Hunter has emphasized winning one-goal games as a priority. After beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 Friday night, the Capitals escaped with yet another close victory Sunday, dropping the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on home ice for their third win in a row. It also put them ahead of the Florida Panthers for first place in the Southeast division for the first time under the first-year coach.
“You gotta win these close games,” Hunter said. “Sometimes it’s going to be 2-1 and it’s going to be a little ugly, but a win is two points no matter which way you do it.”
Much of the game, including the first period, was spent in the Capitals’ zone. The Hurricanes outshot the Capitals 44-24, an astounding total considering that the Hurricanes had beaten the Bruins less than 24-hours before.
“(The Hurricanes) were tired from the night before,” Hunter said. “They played a simple game where they tried not to give us odd man rushes and played it safe.”
If not for Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun, they may very well have come away with their second win in as many days. The Capitals looked sleepy out of the gate, getting outshot 13-4 in the first 20 minutes. However, the Hurricanes were largely unable to generate quality scoring chances against Dale Hunter’s defense and the teams headed to the intermission scoreless.
“They (Carolina) were a little bit hungrier, but we played good enough, battled hard and got the two points,” Vokoun said.
Vokoun, making his ninth straight start in net for the Capitals, once again looked like his old self and was instrumental in keeping the Hurricanes off the board early.
3:34 into the second, Brooks Laich scored what appeared to be the game’s first goal for Washington when he bull-rushed his way to the net and the puck found its way past Cam Ward. But after a video review, the officials decided that there was incidental contact and erased the marker.
“It’s tough, especially in a cat-and-mouse kind of game,” Hunter said of losing out on the goal. “Brooksie made a good play, brought it to the front of the net and barely touched (Ward). It’s one of those calls that you hope evens out by the end of the year.”
Over their next few shifts, the top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson generated several promising chances, and finally at 16:57 of the period Semin ended Ward’s shutout bid.
Johansson created space on the rush and dropped a pass to Semin, who backed Hurricanes defenseman Derek Joslin off and placed a slap shot over Ward’s shoulder and off the water bottle to put the Capitals up 1-0.
Not long after, though, Capitals fourth-liner Jay Beagle was whistled for elbowing and with the Hurricanes buzzing around Vokoun’s net on the power play, Jussi Jokinen tied the score with just 17 seconds to go before the intermission.
The game-tying goal didn’t seem to discourage the Capitals, who took the lead back just 1:12 into the third on rookie defenseman Dmitri Orlov’s first career NHL goal. Jason Chimera carried the puck into the zone with speed and found Orlov streaking to the net, who banked it off Ward from behind the goal line.
“I was waiting for this moment to come,” said Orlov, who has been praised at the AHL level for his offensive capabilities. “It finally came tonight and I’m just extremely happy that…I finally scored my first NHL goal.”
Meanwhile, Ovechkin was held scoreless but roused the crowd on multiple occasions by delivering some big hits, including in the third when sent Tuomo Ruutu crashing into the boards as he attempted to enter the zone with the puck.
Vokoun, who is used to seeing a lot of rubber from his days in Florida, made a season-high 43 saves and continued to be peppered with shots well into the third period. His recent turnaround in play has been perhaps the single biggest factor in his team’s climb to the top of the Southeast division.
“Games like that, they’re fun for the goalie,” Vokoun said. “You are a part of the play a lot. They’re not easy either but I’d take a game like that over a game when there’s 15 shots,” Vokoun said.
At the end of the day, the Capitals have now strung together a three game winning streak and have won seven of nine overall, and winning feels good.
However, they continue to walk a fine line, routinely getting outshot and relying largely on their transition attack and excellent goaltending to win games. On Sunday, they were once again on the heels for much of the night and scored both of their goals on the rush.
Still, the fact remains that the Capitals haven’t lost at home in over a month. With the win they also claimed possession of first place in the Southeast and third in the Eastern Conference, and for a team that was struggling to win more than two games at a time not too long ago, they’ll take it.
“It was a big game here tonight,” Hunter said. “We talked about it, to get back on top of the standings in our division and it was an important win for us.”