They can sense the Stanley Cup playoffs now.
A goal the Capitals once took as a birthright looked out of reach early this season. Not anymore. With just seven games left in the regular season, Washington has fought its way back into a prime position with a late-season surge that continued Thursday night at Verizon Center.
Forward Troy Brouwer and defenseman Mike Green both scored second-period goals, and goalie Braden Holtby finished with a regular-season career-high 43 saves to make that lead stand up in a 3-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Caps (22-17-2, 46 points) remain in first place in the Southeast Division and still hold the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference even after the second-place Winnipeg Jets earned a victory over the Florida Panthers on Thursday. But in a tight chase for the final Stanley Cup playoff spots, Washington garnered necessary points. The No. 6 seed Ottawa Senators (20-14-6, 46 points) and No. 7 seed New York Islanders (21-16-4, 46 points) also won their games to keep pace with the Caps, who have won six games in a row and are 10-1-1 since March 21. They began the season 2-8-1.
"It wasn't the start that we envisioned, that we wanted," said Washington forward Matt Hendricks, whose team fell behind 1-0 in the first period on a Jeff Skinner goal. "But the end result was what we wanted, that's for sure."
Carolina struck first in a dominant first eight minutes of play. They were helped in part by two Caps penalties. Just eight seconds after Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk took a delay-of-game penalty, Brouwer followed suit with a high stick. Then Caps defenseman Jack Hillen was whistled for tripping. The Hurricanes cashed in on that opportunity.
An Eric Staal shot rebounded off Holtby's pads, and the puck was poked home by Skinner at 5:01. The Caps were lucky the lead remained 1-0. Carolina stayed on the power play and by the 11:25 mark was outshooting Washington an astounding 14-0.
"I don't think [early in the season] we would have come back the same way we do now," Holtby said. "That's a benefit of how much we've learned, how much we've came together as a group. If that would have happened in the first month of the season, we would have been down 3-0. Just the way everything was going then."
But the Caps righted themselves this time. The Hurricanes didn't manage another shot until there were 53 seconds left in the period. Defenseman John Carlson had to sweep away a loose puck off the goal line after it slipped under Holtby.
The Caps then took control in the second period. The Hurricanes sagged against a backdoor pass to Alex Ovechkin on the penalty kill and instead watched as center Mike Ribeiro found Brouwer inside the right faceoff circle. He whipped a shot past Peters to tie the game at 1-1.
That goal came at 8:08 of the second. It didn't take long for the Caps to push ahead. This time Green skated around Skinner and had room to operate again from the right faceoff circle. He beat Peters over his right shoulder and gave Washington a 2-1 lead just 2:38 after Brouwer's goal.
With Peters pulled for the extra attacker, Holtby had to make fine saves in the final 90 seconds on both Jiri Tlusty and Eric Staal to preserve the victory. Brouwer sealed it with his second goal of the night, an empty-netter with 5.4 seconds to go. Carolina (16-22-2, 34 points), which led Washington by 10 points in the standings entering play March 14, is 1-13-1 since.