WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin continues to find ways to rack up points without his typical goal-scoring touch and the Washington Capitals continue to receive strong goaltending regardless of which young talent they deploy in net.
That combination continued to be successful Sunday for the Capitals, as they prevailed 3-2 in a shootout against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center. Ovechkin had the lone goal in the shootout and a brilliant setup for Washington's second goal, while Semyon Varlamov made 26 saves for his third win in as many starts since returning from injury.
"I think this was huge points for us," Ovechkin said. "When you play against a team that plays in your division you have a chance to move forward while they stay in the same position. This was a big game for us."
Ovechkin has not scored a goal in the past seven games but has seven assists in that same span and now is second in the NHL with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in that category. His 10 goals in 25 games is far off his normal pace, but he leads the Capitals with 32 points and trails only Crosby and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.
"It is something new," Ovechkin said. "Probably it is not my time [to score] right now. I think I had great chances to score goals and didn’t score but most important games are in the future. … It is not frustration. I have the chances. If I didn't have the chances, that would be frustrating."
Added Nicklas Backstrom: "I think teams are just more on him this year. There are always two guys on him all the time and it makes it a little tougher but it doesn’t matter – we are winning hockey games. I don't think he cares either as long as we win. He's a great passer, too."
Washington has followed three straight losses – two of which were 5-0 blowouts – with victories in three consecutive contests to reassert its lead in the Southeast Division. The Capitals lead the League with 36 points and are now seven clear of the second-place Lightning in the Southeast.
Cam Ward stopped 38 of 40 shots for Carolina. The Hurricanes had one of their best performances of the season Friday in Boston, but lost for the sixth time in eight games and remain off the postseason pace in the Eastern Conference.
"We had a lack of physicality almost," said Carolina coach Paul Maurice, who was coaching his 1,000th NHL game. "We were comfortable playing Washington's game, which we're not built to play and very few teams are. We got better then battled and scratched and clawed – did a real good job coming back against a tough team that doesn't give up many points at home."
Eric Staal salvaged a point for Carolina and sent the game to overtime with a dramatic tally. He won a faceoff against noted draw specialist David Steckel with 7.3 seconds left then was able to find the loose puck after a shot from the point and put it past Varlamov with 2.2 remaining.
It was Staal's team-leading 11th goal of the season and completed a comeback from two goals down for the Hurricanes.
Erik Cole sliced Washington's 2-0 lead in half 50 seconds into the second period. Staal wrestled control of the puck from defenseman John Erskine behind the net and fed Cole for a one-timer from the edge of the crease for his fifth goal of the season. The Hurricanes were much better in the middle period – yielding only seven shots on Ward and few great chances.
"The first period wasn't our best – we came out a little sluggish but we got our legs in the second and battled back against a good team," Staal said. "We managed to get a point but it would have been nice to get [the other] point."
Rookie center Marcus Johansson gave Washington the lead seven minutes into the first period. Eric Fehr's check in the right corner on Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen lodged the puck free and he sent it to Johansson who was all alone in front.
Johansson has missed time with injury twice and had only one point in his first 10 NHL games, but he has two goals and two assists in his past five contests. The assist was Fehr’s third point in his past 11 games.
Alexander Semin, who had a hat trick in the rout of Tampa Bay two days prior, netted his 18th goal of the season at 18:49 of the opening period thanks to a great effort from Ovechkin. Nicklas Backstrom sent a pass to Ovechkin off the boards to ignite a 2-on-1 break for the two Russians, and Ovechkin made a slick move past defenseman Tim Gleason before sending the puck to Semin for a one-timer past Ward.
Semin set a career-high with 40 goals last season, but didn't collect his 18th of the 2009-10 campaign until Jan. 9.
Two days after a 6-0 win against the Lightning – an effort Boudreau deemed "as good as we can play or as well as we have played," the Capitals outshot the Hurricanes 17-7 in the opening 20 minutes and would have led by more than two goals if not for some strong work from Ward.
"We started off pretty good and in the second period they took over a little bit," Backstrom said. "It is tough because they're a great team and they are working hard. But I think we should have won in this game in regulation and I think we were the better team."
Varlamov played in only two of Washington's first 22 games this season because of injuries and some time with Hershey in the American Hockey League for an unofficial rehab assignment. Michal Neuvirth, who was the NHL Rookie of the Month in October and is tied for third in the League with 12 wins, has not played since Nov. 20 because of a lower-body injury, so Varlamov has had a chance and taken advantage.
He has turned aside 73 of 77 shots this week since being recalled from Hershey, including a point-saving stop on Carolina defenseman Ian White from point-blank range in the overtime.
"I think he played a great game and we need those kind of things," Backstrom said. "We need big saves to win hockey games and he's been terrific in these three games that he's played in. That's awesome."
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