- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2013

RALEIGH, N.C.Alex Ovechkin clanked his shot off the post, and Mike Ribeiro only got a piece of the puck. Two minutes felt like 20 as the Washington Capitals’ hopes for a regulation victory hung in the balance.

“We were waiting to see,” coach Adam Oates said. “Another golden opportunity. I’m like, ‘Oh no, we didn’t waste another one.’ ”

It was a golden opportunity to cut into the Carolina Hurricanes’ Southeast Division lead and pick up two valuable points. A fraction of an inch separated elation from disappointment.

When the ruling came back that Ribeiro scored, the Caps had the lead they needed on the way to a 3-2 victory Thursday night that could be vital in keeping their playoff hopes alive. No one was more relieved than Ovechkin, who beat goaltender Dan Ellis and had a wide open net to shoot at before hitting the right post.

“I thought like, ‘Jesus, like please. Just goes in somehow,’ and it went in,” Ovechkin said. “Right now the kind of position we are it doesn’t matter if me or Ribs score, it’s huge two points for us.”

Outside the visitors’ locker room at PNC Arena in the moments after, Oates was ribbing Ovechkin for whiffing on his breakaway attempt. That’s much easier to do after Ribeiro managed to score with just 2:16 left.

Referee Chris Rooney called it a goal when it happened, but the Caps center wasn’t sure going back to the bench.

“It happened so quick. I actually missed my shot there, but the video don’t lie, I guess,” Ribeiro said. “I’ll take those, I’ll take the garbage behind there.”

It’s as good as a gorgeous snipe on the score sheet. Ribeiro’s game-winner pushed the Caps to 23 points on the season, seven back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 22 games to play.

In snapping the losing streak at three, the Caps also returned to where they were before Tuesday’s shutout loss: eight points back of first place in the Southeast.

“With this schedule you can’t afford to go four or five games without a point or a win, especially in our position,” said tough guy Aaron Volpatti, who set up Joey Crabb for Washington’s first goal of the night. “It doesn’t matter how we did it. We got it done, and it’ll be big for us here.”

But how the Caps did it could be a source of pride moving forward. They spotted Carolina a 2-0 lead in the game’s first eight minutes on goals by Alexander Semin and Patrick Dwyer, and it felt eerily reminiscent of two days earlier when the Hurricanes went into Verizon Center and dominated.

Down two goals, players were staring at the possibility of being 12 points back and in serious trouble.

“We’re aware that every point’s important right now and every game’s important,” Crabb said. “We know that going down 2-0 in the first period isn’t good, but we also knew that if we play our game and play our systems and work hard, then we have the skill to finish the plays and we were lucky enough to do that tonight and get a win.”

Oates hopes that this kind of comeback gives his team a “boost” going into Saturday’s game at the Boston Bruins, one they’ll most likely have to play without defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who suffered an apparent right leg injury early in the first period.

As a group the Caps were wounded by a rough start, but they dominated play in the second and third while chipping away at the Hurricanes’ lead. “We don’t give up,” said Ovechkin, whose tying goal was his 700th career NHL point.

The captain brushed off that milestone. Numbers like seven (points back) and 23 (points earned) mean more to him than 700.

“For me it doesn’t matter,” Ovechkin said. “Right now most important thing is get back on track and just stay [in] fight for the playoff spot. It’s long way, and we just have to handle it.”

They handled it Thursday night, coming 2:16 away from a tough situation. Oates wasn’t going to pull goaltender Michal Neuvirth in a tie game, but he knew that winning in regulation and keeping Carolina from picking up a point was crucial if the Caps wanted to keep alive the faint hope of winning this division.

They were less than the width of the puck from no goal and a whole lot of uncertainty.

“We got the bounce,” Oates said.

The Caps’ work isn’t done, but Thursday was a start.

“Yeah, we’re pretty much in the playoffs right now,” Crabb said, flashing some dry wit. “It’s good to get back on track, especially in a win like that.”

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