- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Despite languishing in last place, the Washington Capitals are right to look at the schedule and salivate. Tuesday night was their first of five meetings with the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. Forget the early-season struggles; those are more than enough opportunities to make a difference.

Left wing Jason Chimera pointed out that “you can’t underestimate the magnitude of this game.” The Caps didn’t, and in spanking the Hurricanes 3-0 on Tuesday night, it’s hard to underestimate what another victory, and two more points, means in a shortened season.

“We have to try to put as many in the bank as we can, especially against a Southeast Division team,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “I think it’s huge, it’s a four-point game and we came out tonight and played hard and played the right way and won.”

The Caps improved to 7-10-1 and 15 points. Thanks to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss and the Florida Panthers’ victory, they wake up Wednesday four points out of first place in the Southeast, yet still in last. That speaks to the mediocrity and the parity of the division and also to the value of picking up points any way possible.

The Caps did that Tuesday night in solid and fundamental, if not remarkable, fashion. Braden Holtby (33 saves) continued to roll along, defensemen John Erskine and John Carlson got in on the scoring and Washington had back-to-back victories to be proud of for the first time all season.

“What I’ve been saying all along is we’ve got to play good hockey,” coach Adam Oates said. “If we do that we’re going to get lots of chances, you saw it again tonight. We had plenty of opportunities to score goals, take care of our end, protect our goalie. And let it happen. Play solid.”

It was a night to remember because the Caps could have blown the Hurricanes out of Verizon Center if it weren’t for goalie Cam Ward’s 37-save brilliance.

“Could have got ugly fast and we obviously got to get more goals out of that,” Oates said.

Oates was satisfied with his team’s play for the first two periods, when they tiled the ice and made life difficult on banged-up Carolina, which was missing forwards Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu and defensemen Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen and Jamie McBain.

“When they got a few younger guys on their back end, they’re missing some key guys, it’s no secret: You’ve got to get pucks in deep and make them work 200 feet,” right wing Joel Ward said. “We tried to wear them down as much as we can and pin them in their own zone. When teams are missing key players, you’ve got to make use of it and obviously get pucks in deep.”

Poti said the Caps’ forwards did the job and made the work of the defensemen easy. It was one of their better all-around performances of the season.

“I don’t know I’d have to watch them all again, but I think it’s definitely up there,” Carlson said. “Our forwards in the offensive zone were magnificent.”

Center Nicklas Backstrom had perhaps his best offensive game of the season, and Holtby was good enough that Alexander Semin’s return was a mere footnote of the night.

As the Caps turn their attention to Wednesday’s game at the Philadelphia Flyers, the message is still the same. It’s not about how big they win, even after outscoring opponents 26-14 during this 5-2 stretch. It’s about playing the right way and making a statement as a result.

“I don’t think it was a statement game. I think we’re just taking one game at a time right now,” Erskine said. “We’ve got 30 games left or so. Take one game a night and get as many points as we can until the [playoffs].”

Erskine’s right: There are exactly 30 games left, so it might be early to be thinking playoffs. But it’s not too soon to consider how important victories and points are climbing back into contention.

“It’s a big time for us right now,” Carlson said. “We’ve got to ride this wave to the end of the year.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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