One month ago, the Carolina Hurricanes left Verizon Center in command of the Southeast Division after blowing out the Washington Capitals, who appeared to be on the way to missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Hurricanes left the same building Thursday night with their playoff hopes in tatters while the Capitals moved closer to a division title.
Troy Brouwer scored twice and Braden Holtby made 43 saves as the Capitals won their sixth in a row by beating the Hurricanes 3-1, handing Carolina its seventh consecutive loss.
The victory kept the Capitals (22-17-2) two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets in the race for the division. The Jets kept pace by routing the Florida Panthers 7-2 in Winnipeg.
"We knew the importance of this game," Brouwer said after Washington improved to 12-3-1 since being embarrassed at home by Carolina on March 12. "We came in after the second period and saw what the Winnipeg score was, and knew that we needed to continue to play well. Just the fact that we are desperate for points now, we have to keep getting them to stay where we are in the standings, and I think that a desperate team came through and we were able to capitalize on the [power play] and get another one."
Brouwer and Mike Green scored 2:38 apart midway through the second period to overcome Jeff Skinner's first-period goal for Carolina. Holtby made the lead stand up, and Brouwer hit the empty net in the final seconds.
Carolina, which led the division a month ago, fell to 1-13-1 in its past 15 games -- a stretch that began with a loss to the Capitals in the rematch March 14 -- and has fallen to 14th in the Eastern Conference.
Their coach felt this loss didn't stem from any lack of effort.
"I think really it's that our leaders aren't letting anybody quit," Kirk Muller said. "The big picture is we're in a process here with young guys and a nucleus that we want to get better, and I think we're in the right direction. We definitely deserve a different fate over the past 15 games. It's not there, but this is a learning thing for them and they just have to stay the course."
The Hurricanes came out flying, taking the first 14 shots and opening the scoring at 5:01 of the first period when Skinner banged home the rebound of Eric Staal's shot from the right circle for a power-play goal.
But with Jordan Staal off for slashing, Brouwer tied the game at 8:08 of the second period when he set up in the slot and one-timed Mike Ribeiro's pass behind Justin Peters.
"It's a matter of time, and I think the game goes in waves," Capitals coach Adam Oates said of surviving the early onslaught. "We talk about that. You don't always have your best legs to start a game; it comes and goes. But we turned it around."
Green put the Capitals ahead at 10:46 with an excellent individual effort, moving into the right circle before picking the far corner just under the crossbar for his ninth of the season.
That was enough for Holtby, who stopped all 16 Carolina shots in the final period.
"He was good," Skinner said. "We got a lot of shots on him, and he made some big saves at some big times for them. We just couldn't get one past him. We had a lot of quality chances, we just couldn't get one."
Peters said the Hurricanes haven't quit despite the slide that has all but assured them of an early ending.
"Everyone's still fighting hard," he said. "There were a lot of good things tonight, a lot of great efforts. We pushed really hard to get a goal at the end, and Holtby made a couple of good saves. But we were really hungry and we had our opportunities."
Material from team media was used in this report