RALEIGH, N.C. | The Washington Capitals had a chance Sunday evening to create significant separation in the Southeast Division, but a pair of late goals and strong play in net helped the Carolina Hurricanes prevent it.
Michael Leighton turned away 38 of 39 shots - 11 from Alex Ovechkin, including a penalty shot - while Ray Whitney and Eric Staal provided the offense in a 3-1 victory over the Caps at RBC Center.
With a regulation win, the Caps - despite being decimated by injuries - could have opened up an eight-point lead in the division over the second-place Hurricanes with the season a third of the way complete. Instead, Carolina won for the first time in three games since Paul Maurice replaced Peter Laviolette as coach and cut Washington’s advantage to four points.
“That is why I am so frustrated right now,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “With the injuries we’ve had it would have been ‘OK, it is time for guys to start coming back and getting healthy,’ and we would have been sitting in good position. But now we’re four [up], and it is a dogfight again.”
Leighton was the story for the first 45 minutes, helping his club cling to a 1-0 lead despite facing a barrage of shots. Nicklas Backstrom knotted the score at 1-1 with a power-play goal 8:28 into the final period, and the Caps appeared to have a chance at least to steal a point despite facing a hot goaltender and missing so many bodies.
But the Hurricanes carried the play in the final minutes. Staal scored on a stuff from behind the goal line to the right of Caps goalie Jose Theodore after rookie defenseman Sami Lepisto lost a battle for the puck behind the net with Sergei Samsonov.
“I can’t fall that like that,” Lepisto said. “There was something wrong with my skate, and I bailed. I tried to battle for the puck, but I didn’t know where the puck was and all of a sudden it was in the goal.”
Staal, who signed a seven-year, $57.75 million contract this offseason, had not scored a goal in 15 of the past 16 games. His ninth of the season put Carolina in front with 4:09 to play, and Whitney’s second of the night was an insurance tally a little more than two minutes later.
“We thought if we could get one by [Leighton] and push it into overtime then we would be fine, but we’ve got to continue to play,” Boudreau said. “You can’t get a goal and say, ‘OK, we’ve tied it when there are more than five minutes left.’ … It was a disheartening game.”
Ovechkin had a great chance to even the score at 1-1 in the waning seconds of the middle period. He collected a loose puck and raced down the ice on a short-handed breakaway, but Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen hooked him from behind to set up a penalty shot.
The reigning league MVP went wide to his left and cut across the ice in front of Leighton, faking a backhanded shot before his forehand attempt was rebuffed. Ovechkin is now 0-for-2 this season on penalty shots and 0-for-5 in his career.
Leighton had one of his best performances of the season, and he has started three straight games with No. 1 netminder Cam Ward out of the lineup because of a groin injury.
“I played with [Leighton] for half the year last year,” said Keith Aucoin, who signed with the Caps after two years in the Hurricanes organization. “He was the best goalie in the [American Hockey League]. He made some huge saves [Sunday].”
Among the Caps’ wounded, Tyler Sloan missed his second straight game with a bruised foot, and Eric Fehr was unable to play after hurting his shoulder in the second period Saturday night in Toronto.
Sloan and Fehr are part of an injury list that now has 10 players on it, including eight of the 22 members of the opening night roster.
Alexandre Giroux was added from Hershey of the AHL to replace Fehr in the lineup. Giroux, a 27-year-old who has played for six different AHL clubs since being drafted by Ottawa in 1999, had a league-best 18 goals before being summoned.