The Carolina Hurricanes remain on track for an Eastern Conference playoff berth, but their margin for error shrank considerably on Tuesday night. A 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals in the opening game of a home-and-home series, combined with results elsewhere, kept the Canes in the first wild card spot by a single point, and piles on the pressure for Thursday’s return engagement in Raleigh.
Carolina carried the play early, piling up the shots on Braden Holtby through the first ten minutes. But the momentum was quashed when Sebastian Aho was sent to the penalty box for a questionable hooking penalty. While the Caps did not score on the power play, and in fact the Canes penalty kill looked solid, the ice had tilted in favor of Washington.
They cashed in with 3:31 remaining in the first period, when T.J. Oshie beat Justin Faulk to the front of the net and snuck a shot past Petr Mrazek’s pad, giving the Caps the lead and putting the Canes back on their heels.
It was the Caps on the gas from that point on, skating circles around the Canes in the offensive zone and allowing very little to trouble Holtby. But Dougie Hamilton, on a delayed penalty, took a beautiful behind-the-back pass from Justin Williams and rifled a shot from the top of the far circle to tie the game at 15:38 of the second. Despite being outplayed for long stretches, the Canes were back in the same spot they were in against Montreal on Sunday: back on their heels, but still in range of stealing a point.
Unfortunately for Carolina, history did not repeat itself.
The backbreaking goal, to no one’s surprise, came off the stick of Alex Ovechkin 4:30 into the third period. Ovechkin was the beneficiary of Tom Wilson driving the net and setting the Caps captain up for a one-timer from the high slot. It might not have been his usual office, but the outcome was the same. The goal broke a four-game goal-less streak for Ovechkin and gave him his league-leading 49th goal of the season, the 40th of his career against the Canes.
John Carlson then doubled the Washington lead with nine minutes to go, taking advantage of Mrazek having lost his stick to sneak in from the point and tip home a pinpoint Dmitry Orlov pass. Nicklas Backstrom finished the scoring off into the empty net at 17:33, giving the Caps their third goal in a period that saw the Canes earn the majority of scoring chances. Holtby stood tall, stopping 27 of 28 Carolina shots on his way to the victory.
The Canes remain on 91 points, now one point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens who moved to 90 points after a decisive win over Florida (the Canes still hold a game in hand). To make matters worse, the Columbus Blue Jackets shut out the New York Islanders to advance to 88 points, bunching the standings up even more and putting even more pressure on the Canes to bounce back on Thursday as the home-and-home wraps up at PNC Arena.