RALEIGH, N.C. -- Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller has spent most of his three months on the job preaching "baby steps."
Monday night, the team rewarded him with the first giant leap of the season.
Despite coming into the game in 15th place in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes turned in a dominant performance, jumping on the Capitals for three first-period goals en route to a 5-0 win at the RBC Center.
The Hurricanes have made small strides recently, winning with more regularity than they did earlier in the season. But until Monday night's win, there have been few complete performances.
Against Washington, some of the best contributions came from role players. Goaltender Justin Peters, sent to the minors this season after serving as the NHL backup last year, registered his first career shutout. Anthony Stewart, who was waived earlier in the month, scored his first goal in 19 games.
Andreas Nodl found the net too, registering his third goal since being picked up on waivers in late November.
"We've got a bunch of guys that are scratching and clawing and doing their roles and whatever they can to help out," said Muller, who has guided the Hurricanes to a 9-3-4 mark in their last 16. "They're playing for each other really. If you ask me what our team is all about right now, I'd say they have all sacrificed to try to win."
Rookie defenseman Justin Faulk did his part too. Not only did he kick off the scoring at 3:41 of the first period by burying a rebound on the power play, but the 19-year-old engaged 6-foot-3 power forward Troy Brouwer in a free-swinging second-period fight. It was the first NHL bout for the offensive-minded defenseman, who easily gave up five inches to Brouwer.
"I don't know how he is as a fighter. I don't follow those guys too much," Faulk said with a laugh. "I don't think that's going to be my role too often. When it comes to (fights), I don't have too much of a problem stepping up."
For Washington, which came into the game just two points out of eighth place, nothing went right. Less than two minutes after Faulk's goal, the Hurricanes went up 2-0 with Stewart finishing off a tic-tac-toe bit of passing. The play started when Jiri Tlusty picked the pocket of Washington forward Marcus Johansson at the Washington blue line. Tlusty fed the puck to Eric Staal, who hit Stewart in front of the net for his seventh goal of the season.
"You get put on waivers and you're down for a couple days," Stewart said. "But it's all up from there. I've got to use this as motivation and a wake-up call and just go out and play."
Washington coach Dale Hunter was thinking about a wake-up call for his team at that point. He pulled Tomas Vokoun in favor of the Michal Neuvirth less than six minutes into the game.
"To change momentum, more than anything," Hunter said. "Just slow down the game and get Neuvy in."
Was the change effective?
"Not really," Hunter said flatly.
Carolina padded the lead with just 30 seconds remaining in the first. Brandon Sutter carried the puck from deep in his own zone all the way to the top of the circles in the attacking zone, before finding Nodl for a one-timer that Neuvirth couldn't get across to stop. The Hurricanes finished the period with a 16-5 lead in shots.
From there, the Hurricanes took care of Peters. He saw just 17 shots, only a few of them testers. Peters stopped Mike Knuble on the first shot he faced. Aside from strong saves against John Carlson in the second and Mike Green in the third, Peters mostly needed to maintain his composure to earn his first whitewash.
"It was a lot of fun to watch," Peters said. "I tried to stay mentally ready for when I was called upon. Getting the shutout, I'm just the beneficiary of the effort these guys put it."
Peters' career has been mostly star-crossed since arriving in the NHL at the end of the 2009-10 season. His strong play in nine games that season earned him the backup job to Cam Ward last year. But after a season of struggles he was slated for fulltime duty in Charlotte this season. An injury to Brian Boucher gave Peters new life in the NHL.
"He's really prepared himself since he's been up here," said Muller. "That's a long wait. He's worked hard, and the players are happy playing in front of him for that reason."
The Caps had a chance to get back in the game early in the second period when they earned their first power play, but the Canes used the occasion to widen their lead. When Johansson's low-to-high pass slipped past Dennis Wideman, Staal outraced Mike Green for a breakaway backhander through the legs of Neuvirth. It was the Hurricanes' 10th shorthanded goal of he season, good for second in the NHL.
Staal, whose first-half struggles were a major factor in the Canes slow start, added another goal in the third, taking a hard pass from Jaroslav Spacek at the doorstep to push Carolina's advantage to five. Staal has 11 points in his last six games.
"I'm a leader on this team, and it wasn't going good or the way I imagined it in the summer, going into the season," Staal said. "There was still a ton of hockey left and I couldn't sulk and make it worse. I had to refresh and be a leader again for this team.
"As a group, we have slowly built our confidence in each other, and we're starting to play the way Kirk wants us to. It's leading to good wins and good results."