WASHINGTON (AP) - The closest thing the last-place Washington Capitals will come to a playoff series this season is a scheduling quirk that has them playing the first-place Carolina Hurricanes over and over and over again. The results have been surprisingly competitive.
The Hurricanes defeated the Capitals 4-3 in a shootout Wednesday night, two days after beating their Southeast Division rivals 6-5 in overtime in Raleigh. Washington won 3-1 and 5-1 in Raleigh as part of a recent road trip, and the clubs will meet again Friday in Washington for their fifth matchup in two weeks.
"What we thought would be a real negative of playing a team five times in seven games has become very entertaining," Washington coach Glen Hanlon said.
Matt Cullen scored the only goal in Wednesday's shootout, and the victory moved the Hurricanes within two points of Ottawa for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Senators lost 5-4 in overtime to Buffalo on Wednesday.
"They play us tough every time," said Carolina center Eric Staal, who had a goal and an assist. "They're always working hard and finishing their checks. They were able to stay around tonight. It was just nice to get the win."
Brian Willsie, Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich all failed to beat Hurricanes goaltender Martin Gerber in the shootout, while Cullen became the first player this season to solve Washington goalie Brent Johnson in a shootout. Johnson had stopped all six shootout attempts he had faced before Wednesday.
Ovechkin got his 49th and 50th assists, running his points streak to 10 games and putting him within two goals of becoming the second rookie in NHL history to have 50 goals and 100 points in a season. Ovechkin has 48 goals and 98 points with seven games to play.
Ovechkin also set an NHL rookie record for most shots in a season. He had five to give him 388, one more than Teemu Selanne's mark of 387 in 1992-93.
"He's by far I think the best rookie this season," Staal said, "And he's going to be a great player for a long time."
The Capitals rallied from a 2-0 first-period deficit, and, despite the loss, extended their points streak to seven games, their longest in more than five years.
Staal and Cullen scored in the first period for the Hurricanes. Staal's tap-in, which came a few seconds after a Hurricanes power play expired, was his 43rd goal of the season, but his first since March 21, ending a seven-game drought.
Jeff Halpern and Dainius Zubrus scored in the second period for the Capitals, and Zubrus added another goal during a frantic scramble in a 5-on-3 power play with 12:49 remaining in the third period to give the Washington a 3-2 lead.
But Mark Recchi tied the game at 3 with 6:35 remaining in regulation on a power play, hitting a routine shot from the right circle that tricked through Johnson's legs.
"That's the hump, the one-goal games that we have lost all year, the overtime games that we have lost all year," Halpern said. "Good teams find a way to win, and we are close. It's not quite there."
Notes: Carolina LW Cory Stillman had three assists. ... The Capitals returned home from a seven-game road trip. They went 3-1-3, with two wins against the Hurricanes. ... The Capitals recalled forwards Kris Beech, Eric Fehr and Louis Robitaille from the Hershey Bears of the AHL. ... Hershey defenseman Mike Green, a first-round pick by the Capitals in 2004, was named to the AHL's all-rookie team.