After Tomas Vokoun had made the last of his 43 saves, and the final horn had sounded, Capitals fans were given yet another reason to cheer. The game entertainment crew put the standings on the giant video board and updated them instantly, moving Washington into first place in the Southeast Division.
The Capitals, a team struggling so mightily that they fired their coach in late November, are back in a familiar spot after Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. The four-time defending division champs are tied for first with the Florida Panthers with 50 points – with Washington holding the tiebreaker based on number of victories.
”It was a big game here tonight; we knew it was,” Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. ”We talked about it – to get back, the top of the standings in our division. It’s an important win for us.”
The Capitals have done it by winning seven in a row at home. They haven’t trailed there since Dec. 13, although it’s helped that the three victories on this homestand have come against opponents playing the second half of a back-to-back.
Dmitry Orlov broke a third-period tie with his first NHL goal, and Alexander Semin also scored for the Capitals. Vokoun, making his ninth straight start, pulled out his third straight one-goal win.
Washington is 12-9-1 since Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau, a reversal from the time when, according to Vokoun, ”everybody was walking around here being pessimistic.”
”Things can change here,” Vokoun said. ”Just like we were 7-0 and things went bad. You have to play consistently through the season to be successful, and you’re going to have ups and downs, but I still believe we’re a very good team and we can turn things around. Maybe the struggles were the best thing for us to realize what we needed to do.
”In past years, they were cruising through the regular season and never got through the challenge (of the playoffs). This year it looks like it’s going to be a fight for the playoffs until the end, and it’s almost like those teams who are fighting for a long time, they’re ready for the playoffs.”
Jussi Jokinen broke his 25-game goal-scoring drought for the Hurricanes, who had won two straight to climb out of the division cellar. Cam Ward made 22 saves, and last season’s rookie of the year Jeff Skinner got through the game without incident after sitting out 16 because of a concussion.
Coming off a big win over the Boston Bruins at home on Saturday night, the Hurricanes arrived in the nation’s capital for a 5 p.m. faceoff hoping to win a 1-0 game. They nearly succeeded.
”We said before the game we’re not going to make excuses about it, and we’ve got to find a way to win,” Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. ”The guys played hard; they came up short. But I think they emptied the tank. It’s what we asked them to do. The next step is to find a way to win it.”
Hunter referred to the Hurricanes’ strategy as ”cat and mouse.” The Capitals were outshot 44-24 and found themselves relying heavily on Vokoun.
”They threw a lot of rubber at him,” Hunter said, ”and he had to be sharp.”
The first period had no goals and only one penalty – for delay of game – and Ward kept it scoreless when he got his right arm in the way of Joel Ward’s point-blank shot early in the second.
Washington’s Brooks Laich managed to stuff a shot past Cam Ward a few minutes later – while tripping over the goalie’s right leg as the puck trickled off the post and into the net. The contact caused Ward to lose track of the puck, and the goal was disallowed after a video review. Hunter said the official told him Laich was guilty of ”incidental contact” with Ward.
Semin scored the first goal that counted – and his 11th of the season – late in the second, beating Ward with a shot just under the crossbar from the right circle.
Jokinen ended his dry spell on a power play in the final seconds of the second period. Vokoun was sprawled on the ice when he somehow stopped a close-range shot by Alexei Ponikarovksy, but Jokinen was there for the rebound for his first goal since Nov. 20 and fifth of the season.
Rookie defenseman Orlov, playing in his NHL 25th game, scored the game-winner by putting in the rebound after a shot by Jason Chimera at 1:12 of the third. Orlov was all smiles as he was wrapped in a hug from Chimera and received congratulations from the rest of the team as he made his way along the bench.
”I was a little bit worried about it, sort of anxious. I was waiting for this moment to come,” Orlov said through an interpreter. ”It finally came tonight and I’m just extremely happy.”
NOTES: The Capitals are 8-2 against Southeast teams this season, the top record in the division. … A sign of Washington’s defensive mindset under Hunter: The team has had 30 or fewer shots on goal in each of its last 14 games. … Skinner led Carolina with 12 goals and 24 points at the time of his concussion, sustained Dec. 7 at Edmonton.