WASHINGTON -- Five years ago, the Washington Capitals got off to a terrible start and a coach without the benefit of a full training camp rallied them to an improbable playoff berth.
The 2012-13 season is obviously a truncated one and the comparison isn't perfect, but these Capitals just might be on the verge of a season-saving surge. Washington attacked the injury-depleted Carolina Hurricanes early and earned a 3-0 victory Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
It was the Capitals' fifth win in seven games. After a 2-10-1 start, the Capitals are within four points of the three-way tie at the top of the Southeast Division.
Washington started 2007-08 by going 6-14-1 before Bruce Boudreau arrived and helped the Capitals to a furious finish, overtaking the Hurricanes on the final day of the season for the first of four straight division titles.
"You can see some parallels there," veteran defenseman Tom Poti said. "We started slow and had a new coach with a fresh, new system for us to learn. We just kind of ran with it and took off. I think it is starting look similar."
New coach Adam Oates had the benefit of starting the season in charge, but a brief training camp didn't provide much time for the Capitals to figure out everything from a coach whose attention to detail defenseman Karl Alzner called "insane" earlier in the day.
The Capitals are by no means "back." They are still in last place in the Southeast --, but the gap has been narrowed. The past two wins have come against a backup goaltender and a banged-up defense corps, but Washington is generating offense while not yielding a lot of quality scoring chances at the other end.
The grand vision behind hiring Oates -- that he could find a happy medium between Boudreau's offense and Dale Hunter's defense -- is starting to come into focus.
"It is getting there," said Oates, who offered a response of "60 to 70" percent when pressed on how close he thought the Capitals were to having his teachings locked in. "I think the guys are realizing that the more they play as a unit and they do the right things, the little things, there is always going to be support for each other and you're in a way better position to make the next play. That's what we're trying to accomplish.
"It's just not clockwork yet. Guys are still making decisions from habits from before from whatever team they were or on or whatever system they were in. It is still not automatic all the time. We have waves of it where it looks automatic, but then we shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit."
Much of the pregame discussions centered around a Hurricanes player returning to Verizon as a former member of the Capitals, but the bigger story proved to be connected to the guys who didn't suit up for the visitors. The Capitals battered Cam Ward early and often in the first 30 minutes -- and by the time the Hurricanes steadied and pushed back it was too late.
Ward made 36 stops, including a save-of-the-year candidate on Joel Ward when the lead was still only two. But the Hurricanes couldn't solve Braden Holtby, who finished with 33 saves for his second shutout of the season.
"This is a tough place to play," said Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo, who had a brief tenure in Washington in 2009-10. "They're all over you all the time. They don't give you much time. ... [Ward] played really well, especially in the second to keep us in there. He definitely gave us a chance."
Nicklas Backstrom missed practice Monday because he was sick, but he was Washington's best player in this contest among several worthy candidates. He was on the end of a pretty passing sequence with the Capitals on the power play to give Washington a first-period lead, and he set up John Erskine's goal 31 seconds in the second period to make it 2-0.
John Carlson made it 3-0 when he hammered a home the rebound of a Mathieu Perreault shot at 11:28 of the third period to end any doubt.
"I think it's been going great," Carlson said. "The best part of the whole scenario is that from day one, everyone stuck to it. When we were losing games and we were playing bad, guys didn't come in the room and question anything. We stayed as a team and we did the right things. Clearly it took a little bit longer than any of us would like, but in the end hopefully it works out for the better."
This game did mark the return of Alexander Semin to Washington for the first time since leaving after seven seasons here. A hearty dose of boos greeted Semin each time he held the puck, but he missed a chance in the opening minutes to quiet the crowd.
Semin had a shorthanded breakaway at 2:55 of the first period, but Holtby turned away his shot. Semin finished the night with four shots on net, and nearly had a great assist to linemate Eric Staal, but Mike Ribeiro prevented a likely goal with a nice defensive play.
"I was pretty happy. I don't hold any bad blood against him or anything like that, but obviously you don't want him to come into here, so it was great," Carlson said. "We had a good few first shifts, but once we had that breakdown and he stopped that I think everyone on the bench felt the same way."
The Capitals took the train to Philadelphia after the game, and the rested Flyers, who also are in desperate need of wins, are waiting for a Wednesday Night Rivalry game. It's the start of a stretch of 17 games in 33 days, and 11 of those contests are away from Verizon Center.
When it ends, the calendar will turn to April. If the Capitals still have hopes of reaching the playoffs at that point, it will likely be remembered that the seeds of their revival were sown in the past few days.
"We're slowly picking it up and I think we can put together a big string of wins, which is what we're going to have to do," Poti said.
"We really just have to keep pushing. We have to put away as many points as we can right now when we're playing good and playing hot. You just got to keep going."