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Capitals beats Hurricanes 4-1 to pull into tie for first place in Southeast

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals

WASHINGTON - The chants of "M-V-P!" subsided for a moment, so Alex Ovechkin waved a glove to implore the red-clad fans for more.

Ovechkin scored his league-leading 63rd goal and got all sorts of help Tuesday night in Washington's 4-1 victory over Carolina, a result that left the teams tied atop the Southeast Division at 90 points with two games to go in the regular season.

Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Matt Cooke scored before Ovechkin's insurance goal, Sergei Fedorov and Mike Green contributed two assists apiece, and Cristobal Huet made 21 saves. Add it all up, and the Capitals were able to celebrate a five-game winning streak for the first time since March 2001. They've also won nine of their past 10 games.

Remember: Washington ranked 30th of 30 NHL teams in late November, about a quarter of the way through the season, when minor league coach Bruce Boudreau replaced the fired Glen Hanlon. And Washington still stood only 14th of 15 Eastern Conference clubs at the season's halfway point.

Now, though, the Capitals have a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 season, sitting one point out of eighth place in the East. If they can pass the Hurricanes - as of now, Carolina holds the tiebreaker advantage - the Capitals would win their first division championship since 2000-01.

Both Washington and Carolina have two games left, against the same opponents: Tampa Bay and Florida. A regulation victory Tuesday would have allowed Carolina to clinch the division title and No. 3 seeding for the playoffs.

Most of the spectators in the announced sellout crowd of 18,277 wore red shirts, matching the Capitals' jerseys, and they rose in unison for a standing ovation at the end of the first period. The home team was ahead 2-0 by then, and they were back on their feet, clapping and yelling, after Ovechkin made it 4-1 with 3 1/2 minutes left on a spectacular goal.

Rookie Nicklas Backstrom slid the puck in front of the net, seemingly out of Ovechkin's reach. But the star left wing reached out, his back to the crease, and controlled the puck, wheeled around and shot into the upper right corner.

It was only right that Ovechkin would play a role in by far the most significant game the franchise has played in the past five years. This is a team, after all, that finished 27th in the league the past two seasons.

Cooke - like Huet, acquired the day of the trade deadline - put Washington ahead 15 minutes into the game by using his right skate to direct a rebound onto his stick and then knocking the puck home. Then, with 58.3 seconds to go in the first period and a single second left on a power play, Laich took a pass from Tomas Fleischmann and deked Ward from close range to make it 2-0.

Carolina got to 2-1 about 2 1/2 minutes into the second period, when Bret Hedican's shot trickled past Huet and sat still in the crease for a moment, until Scott Walker dived to swipe at it with his stick.

But Washington was back up by two goals 14 1/2 minutes into the second period on Semin's power-play score, his 25th goal. Ovechkin was serving a roughing penalty after he and Carolina's Niclas Wallin were involved in some pushing and shoving.

That came during Trevor Letowski's four-minute high-sticking penalty, and Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette engaged the officials in a lengthy, animated argument.

Notes: Hurricanes F Justin Williams (knee) and Ray Whitney (leg) came off injured reserve and played - although Williams left with a torso injury. Williams missed the previous 43 games, Whitney the previous 12. ... Huet has won his last seven starts. ... Capitals D Shaone Morrisonn left in the first period with an upper body injury.

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