WASHINGTON — — Sunday's matinee against the Carolina Hurricanes won't go down as one of the more complete or perfect performances by the Washington Capitals this year. In fact, there were few moments at Verizon Center where they seemed firmly in control of the contest, but all that truly matters is that the Capitals found a way to win.
Boosted by Dmitry Orlov's first NHL goal, which stood as the game-winner, and a 43-save outing by Tomas Vokoun, the Capitals claimed a 2-1 win over Carolina that catapulted them to first place in the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference.
Washington's 50 points tie it with the Florida Panthers, but the Caps earn the nod because they have more regulation wins (24) in the same number of games played (43). The last time the Capitals were in first place was Nov. 18.
"We didn't have our best game today," said Vokoun, who recorded a season high in saves in his ninth straight start, which tied his longest stretch this year. "I feel like they were a little more hungrier, but saying that, we play good enough and we battle hard, we get the two points. That's the most important part."
For roughly 30 minutes the Capitals skated sleepily through the game, and it was Carolina, which defeated the Boston Bruins the night before in Raleigh, that looked well rested. The Hurricanes peppered Vokoun early, and although the first period ended scoreless, they held a 13-4 advantage in shots on goal.
Early in the second it appeared as though the stalemate had been broken. Brooks Laich drove toward the crease, and as he collided with Cam Ward (22 saves), his shot slid over the goal line 3:34 into the period for what looked to be a 1-0 Capitals lead. The officials eventually waved off the goal, however, because of incidental contact by Laich when he crashed into Ward in the goalmouth.
Referee Kyle Rehman initially called it a goal, but the players were told he was overruled by the other three officials on the ice.
"If that's the case, I don't know why there needs to be a review of the goal," Laich said. "There's good breaks and bad breaks, you live life and move on."
While the Capitals continued to trudge through the contest, there were a few individual exceptions — notably Vokoun and Alex Ovechkin. The star left wing was making his presence known with heavy checks — he finished the game with a team-high five hits — and a pair of board-rattling hits on Carolina winger Patrick Dwyer near the 13-minute mark seemed to energize the rest of the group. Washington would get on the scoreboard shortly thereafter.
On a rush created by a Carolina turnover, Alexander Semin snapped a wicked shot high into the right corner above Ward's glove to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead 16:57 into the second.
It was a tally that seemed a long time coming for Semin, who had hit the post three times in his previous three periods of play, and it snapped a four-game goal scoring drought for the winger. With 16.3 seconds remaining, however, Jussi Jokinen tied the score at 1 with Jay Beagle in the box for elbowing.
The start of the third brought the biggest push from the Capitals, and it didn't take long for them to regain the lead. Orlov helped lead the rush up ice, and as a shot by Jason Chimera bounced off Ward, the rookie defenseman swatted it between the left post and the goaltender for a 2-1 edge just 1:12 into the third. Washington clung to the cushion provided by Orlov's goal the rest of the way, and despite several close calls and needing to rely on Vokoun for 18 saves in the third alone, it the tally withstood the test.
It marked the 20-year-old's first NHL goal, and given that it took until his 25th game, Orlov was beaming when the milestone finally arrived.
"I only have positive emotions," Orlov said through an interpreter. "Of course, I was a little bit lucky on that goal, but I'm happy it went in. I'm also happy that this was a game-winning goal because we as a team we need to get the points, especially in the tight and difficult games like this."