RALEIGH, N.C. – It was an all too familiar scene at this point in the NHL season for the Carolina Hurricanes.
While still holding on to a wildcard playoff spot following a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Thursday, there was no explanation for not winning a well-played game.
Goals from Nino Niederreiter and Warren Foegele were not enough, nor was a 17-save effort from goaltender Curtis McElhinney.
Washington completed its season sweep of the Hurricanes with markers from depth players in Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, and Nic Dowd.
Goalkeeper Braden Holtby earned the win, making 24 saves, including two critical ones that denied Carolina on its lone power play late in the third.
“We played really well – I thought it was a great game,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
“Better than the other night. Everyone played hard, but it just didn’t go our way.”
Too close for comfort
The loss, Carolina’s second to the Caps in three days, allowed the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens to stay close, sitting just a point behind in the Eastern Conference standings.
Niederreiter’s 22nd goal of the season, assisted by captain Justin Williams and Sebastian Aho, put Carolina ahead 1-0 early in the first.
However, the joy in getting on top of the defending Stanley Cup champions was short-lived as Connolly evened the score 42 seconds later.
Taking the lead
Rookie forward Warren Foegele put Carolina ahead with an impressive individual effort to push the puck past Caps defenseman Nick Jensen and then deked Holtby out of position and scored his eighth goal of the year at the 12:30 mark of the second.
The Hurricanes carried the 2-1 lead into the third, intent on keeping the pressure on the Caps.
They did just that finishing with a 10-4 shots on goal differential.
But it was a scoreless effort.
“I think we played a good game,” Aho said.
“Lots of scoring chances. I think we didn’t give them a lot. I feel like we had that game, but they got a couple goals in the third and that was it.”
Just 1:35 into the period, Vrana made it a 2-2 game.
Holtby continued to do his job in thwarting various Canes scoring attempts and then Dowd’s redirect through McElhinney’s pads gave the Caps their first and only lead of the game with 4:56 remaining.
All was not yet lost for Carolina as a tripping penalty to Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik gave them an opportune power play to even the score.
They couldn’t do it then, nor subsequently with McElhinney out for the extra skater for the remaining two minutes.
“We got one chance today and we should make it count,” Aho said.
“Games like this, you just have to find a way on the power play and put the puck in the net.”
“It hurts a ton,” Brind’Amour said.
“It’s tough, it’s tough. Guys are devastated in there. They know what’s at stake. I thought they gave everything they had. We’ll regroup tomorrow and come back at it. I think if we play like that in our remaining games, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport