After all, he had recorded five shutouts in March, extending his league lead to nine for the season.
So as the Caps protected their one-goal lead against Tampa Bay, they were doing it with confidence.
But with eight minutes left, Roman Hamrlik took a fluky shot that hopped off the ice, hit a few bodies or gloves -- no one is sure -- and landed sight unseen by a screened Carey in the back of his previously unblemished net, securing a 1-1 tie that held up, to the disappointment of the 18,130 at USAir Arena.
"It could have hit 50 different things out there, I never saw it," said Carey, still mystified by the goal that ended his personal-best 200 minutes, 4 seconds of shutout hockey.
Hamrlik's goal matched the short-handed goal by Washington's Peter Bondra in the first period.
"It's tough to accept a tie game like that," said Carey. "You're leading, you want to win. It's disappointing, but I think the tie hurts them more than us."
Unbeaten since the trading deadline, 3-0-3 in their past six games and owning the ninth-best record in the NHL, the Capitals seemed to have this regular season well in hand.
But last night was vital to the Capitals' playoff hopes -- and to Tampa Bay's. And the two combined for a close-to-the-vest, defensive battle that left little room for shots, mistakes and losing.
"It was our fourth game in six nights," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "We might have been lacking a little jump and we've been asking a lot of our players. We're short-manned [five men injured], and sometimes when you're playing the type of hockey we're playing, with as much at stake as there is, and with the effort the players are giving, sometimes, it gets a little dry in the well.
"But we played a hard-fought game. We got a point. And now we get a day off to recuperate."
With six games left, Washington, Boston, New Jersey and Tampa Bay are all within three points of one another as they scrap for the sixth, seventh and eighth playoff positions.
"Carey plays well and I got to tell you, he gets a lot of support from his guys," said Tampa Bay coach Terry Crisp. "But in the third period, boy, did Carey make some saves. Man, oh, man. [Daren] Puppa did too. It was a good goaltending duel [24 saves each]. . . . We'll take the tie and get the [heck] out of here."
At one point last night, Carey was so brilliant he stunned the crowd into silence. With five minutes left to play, Tampa's Mikael Andersson stole the puck and broke in alone for what looked to be the winning goal.
Carey flopped like a rag doll, his left leg extended. He sat there, his back against the goalpost. The crowd, on its feet, held its breath and frantically searched for the puck, as did the ref and Andersson. "I knew where the puck was," said Carey, smiling. "I could feel it under me -- I was lucky."
Pub Date: 4/01/96