By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored a goal and assisted on two others, including the game-winner, in a 4-3 decision levied against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.
It soured what was a historic and memorable day at PNC Arena for the Hurricanes organization and its fanbase.
With a sense of rejuvenation initiated with the introduction of new majority owner Tom Dundon, a final-seconds loss to the Capitals deflated the energy that had built up throughout the day.
Playing in the back end of a home-and-home set in consecutive days, Carolina couldn’t follow up on a 3-1 winning effort in Washington the night before.
Goals from Jordan Staal, Sebastian Aho, and Jeff Skinner fueled the Hurricanes offensive efforts, backstopped by a 23-save finish from goaltender Cam Ward.
Goals from Lars Eller, Alex Ovechkin, and Brett Connolly evened the score for Washington in the first, second, and third periods, respectively, as goalkeeper Philipp Grubauer battled to keep his team in the game while facing 39 shots.
However, it was Jay Beagle’s drive to redirect the puck past Ward with 1.3 seconds on the clock that left the Hurricanes with nothing to show for their effort.
“It’s a loss, no points,” Carolina head coach Bill Peters said.
“We had an opportunity to put a game away. We gave up two in the last three minutes, roughly. It would have been nice to lock it down and get the two points.”
With lots of off-ice excitement generated with Dundon’s official introduction to local media and business and sport organization leaders, the crowd of 16,239 was buzzing before puck drop.
Sitting in the second wildcard spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings, Carolina had a chance to put up some more points against the first-place Capitals.
Staal’s 13th goal of the season on the power play, his 200th career marker, put the Hurricanes ahead 1-0 at 3:20 into the opening period.
Eller’s goal four minutes later evened the score 1-1 and both teams remained tied heading into the first intermission.
As a penalty to defenseman Haydn Fleury ended, Ovechkin sniped a shot high to Ward’s glove side that gave Washington its first lead of the game.
Afforded another power play opportunity, Aho’s slapper while the puck was rolling and bouncing on a pass from defenseman Justin Faulk eluded Grubauer as the knuckler bulged the twine.
Aho’s team-leading 16th goal evened the score 2-2 with 12:10 remaining in the second.
Both goalkeepers shone for the remainder of the frame and kept the score tied while Carolina outshot the Capitals 29-15 up to that point.
Grubauer held steady against another Hurricanes power play, their third of the game of an eventual set of five man-up chances earned throughout.
The keeper crowded a tip-in and rebound attempt from Lee Stempniak at the top of his crease.
The opportunity was Stempniak’s first of two attempts on the night, making his season debut after sitting out due to injury since the beginning of the season for Carolina.
At the other end, Ward executed reactive and acrobatic skills that kept Washington from pulling ahead.
With 7:44 remaining in the period, Ward made it across his crease and with his left pad and successfully denied Devante Smith-Pelly’s one-timer off an Ovechkin cross-crease pass.
The Hurricanes’ commitment to effective puck possession on the breakout and into the offensive zone paid dividends early in the third.
With successive passes from Fleury out of the defensive zone and Stempniak through neutral ice, Skinner crossed the Capitals blue line and found time and space between three defenders to snap a shot that ricocheted over Grubauer’s shoulder, going right-post to left post, and into the net.
His 14th goal of the season put Carolina ahead 3-2 at the 1:49 mark.
While Washington continued to press as Ovechkin worked to find his teammates open, Ward helped to hold the Carolina lead as he slid across his crease and made a left-shoulder save that denied Evgeny Kuznetsov’s one-timer with 5:33 remaining.
The Capitals’ forecheck eventually disrupted Carolina’s defensive tempo and a giveaway from recently-named All-Star defenseman Noah Hanifin resulted in Connolly catching Ward scrambling to swipe at a puck that tied the game 3-3 just over two minutes later.
With 10 seconds remaining, it looked as though both teams would skate to a tie and into overtime.
However, a clean breakout initiated by Carlson quickly got the puck to Ovechkin and into the Carolina zone.
As the Washington captain lost control of the puck at the top of the left circle, it looked as through Brock McGinn would pick it up and ride time out for Carolina.
However, a quick stick check from Nicklas Backstrom allowed him to turn and put the puck towards Ward’s net with 2.5 second remaining.
The pass eluded both Faulk and defensive partner Jaccob Slavin, and allowed Beagle to get his stick on the puck to score the game-winner.
Williams, who played with the Capitals for the last two seasons before returning to Carolina, expected nothing less of their final push to end it.
“They knew there was no time left, so they just threw it backdoor,” Williams said.
“They made a play.”
Sitting with a bloodied lip, the result of a no-call high stick from Kuznetsov during the final minute of play, a disappointed Staal looked back on what turned out to be a disappointing finish.
“I thought we played a great game,” Staal said.
“A couple of mistakes at the end, obvioiusly. It definitely hurt.”
Notes: Staal extended his current point streak to five straight games (1/4-1/12: 3g, 3a), and also earned a special-teams point for his fourth consecutive game… Aho registered his team-leading 10th multi-point game (1g, 1a) of the season. He’s recorded a point in three straight games (1/9-1/12: 3g, 1a), and leads the team in goals (16), points (37), and power-play goals (4)…Carolina finished 2-for-5 on the power play and is 25-for-141 (17.7%) on the man-advantage this season. The Hurricanes were 3-for-4 on the penalty kill and are 85-for-107 (79.4%) on the kill this season.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport