RALEIGH, N.C. - For most of the first period, the Carolina Hurricanes appeared on their way to a convincing win over the Washington Capitals. Jiri Tlusty scored twice, first on a rebound, then on a power-play wrist shot. After 19 minutes, Carolina held a 2-0 lead and a 10-3 advantage in shots.
Then Alex Ovechkin changed everything.
With 39 seconds remaining in the opening period, Ovechkin stepped into a wrist shot from the top of the right circle, beating Carolina goaltender Dan Ellis high to the far post. Suddenly, the Capitals came to life.
"Big goal by Ovechkin at the end of the first period. Huge goal. We had nothing," Washington coach Adam Oates admitted.
Washington struck for four more goals in the second period, riding four assists from center Nicklas Backstrom to finish off the Hurricanes 5-3. Ovechkin finished with two goals, as did defenseman Mike Green -- with Backstrom assisting on all four.
The Capitals pulled within two points of the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Southeast Division. The Hurricanes continue their free fall, having gone 1-8-1 in their last 10.
"Scoring that one late in the period to give us some life was a huge help," said Joel Ward, whose 2-on-1 goal provided the final margin. "After that, I think we realized if we stayed with it, we would get some chances."
Added Green: "We need goals like that. We've been on the opposing end when guys have scored goals like that. It brings your morale down, and it takes a while to get it back."
The Capitals picked up where they left off, tying the score quickly at the start of the second period. Washington went on the power play when Jeff Skinner covered the puck with his hand, and moments later Green blasted a slap shot from the middle point past Ellis to tie the game.
But Washington quickly recaptured the momentum. After setting up each of his team's first two goals, Backstrom left a drop pass for Green, whose shot over the Ellis's glove tied the game at 3-3 and chased the Carolina netminder from the game in favor of Justin Peters.
Backstrom wasn't finished, as he set up Ovechkin on a beautiful 2-on-1 though the slot.
"Nick is so good at passing it's incredible," Green said.
With the four-point night, Backstrom has 35 points in 36 games. His 29 assists rank third in the NHL.
"We're working hard out there and moving the puck well," Backstrom said. "That's a big key for success. It's do or die for us right now so we have to come to work every night."
For Green, the evening's performance brought back memories of when the two Washington stars dominated the scoresheet.
"You mean the good old days?" Green asked with a smile. "What a combo between those two. [Backstrom] is back to his game. He slows everything down and makes the players around him better. He's just coming into his own I think with the shortened season. This is about when guys start to feel good during the season."
While Washington clearly had Carolina's number in the second period, they jumped to the lead with great efficiency, managing the 5-3 lead on just 11 shots through two periods.
For the Hurricanes, the loss was another critical misstep in a season that is slipping away. Once the division leader with a 15-9-1 record, Carolina now trails both Winnipeg and Washington in the Southeast and sits 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Carolina coach Kirk Muller has been critical of the team's play in recent games, but not Tuesday night. While the loss was another that the Hurricanes could ill afford, the Hurricanes had stretches of the game in which they peppered Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, particularly at the end of the second period when Holtby had to stop a half-dozen quality shots.
"They're focused, they're passionate and they're showing it," Muller said about his club. "We're just not getting the end result, which is unfortunate because they deserve better. They're pushing hard."
Carolina was dealt a blow in the second period. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen left the ice on a stretcher with 1:57 remaining. He was racing to make a touch for icing alongside Washington forward Troy Brouwer. Pitkanen went hard into the boards without slowing much of his impact.
Muller said Pitkanen was evaluated at the arena and did not go to the hospital. Muller did not speculate on the severity of the injury, noting only that it appeared the injury was to Pitkanen's heel or ankle.
With a 4-1-1 mark in its last six games, Washington is back in the thick of the playoff race -- but no one is jumping to any conclusions about the team's destiny.
"We can't get that far ahead of ourselves," Oates said. "Just like two weeks ago, we didn't look at the standings either. We just have to play our hockey and just keep improving. It's not going to be good enough to just keep playing like this. We have to keep improving and worry about (the playoffs) later."
Ward agreed with his coach, that the push to the postseason is just underway.
"We're slowly coming together to put ourselves in this situation," Ward said. "It's just about more confidence, especially coming down the stretch here."