- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nicklas Backstrom couldn’t see many positives.

Staring up at the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes going into Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals stared up at the scoreboard at the end of the game to see a crushing, 4-0 defeat.

“Our effort is not good enough,” Backstrom said. “I think tonight was 60 minutes of just terrible effort from us.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner questioned even more, not just about this loss but the Caps’ past three that dropped them to 14th in the Eastern Conference. They’re now 10 points back of the Hurricanes in the division race.

“It’s almost like we’re not playing with that energy and that intensity anymore,” Alzner said. “Our battle, our compete level hasn’t been high enough, so the exact reason I don’t know, but it’s been a downward spiral in the last three.”

Coach Adam Oates didn’t necessarily agree with that assessment, that his team lacked that requisite “compete level.” All that even though his team was outshot 36-26 and struggled to possess the puck most of the night.

“We were doing a lot things right,” Oates said. “We had a lot of chances early, we didn’t score, they got a soft one and put us on our heels.”

The Caps did get some chances, like when Alex Ovechkin set up Marcus Johansson for what should have been a lay-up in front. But they were stifled at every turn by goaltender Justin Peters, who earned his second career shutout, both against Washington.

But Peters didn’t want to soak up the praise. This was about the first-place Hurricanes flexing their muscles.

“We played an awesome game, I think, tonight as a team, right from the drop of the puck right to the last buzzer,” he said. “That was a total group effort tonight and a huge confidence-builder for us.”

What the Hurricanes did was play a polar-opposite game from the Caps. While Backstrom was questioning effort, Carolina coach Kirk Muller called it one of his team’s better 60-minute performances of the season.

“As a team you just try to go out there and play a full 60 minutes, and that’s your goal each and every night,” said center Riley Nash, who scored twice. “I guess it’s good that we’re finally getting close to our goal.”

The Caps’ goal is to make sure their season doesn’t end after 48 regular-season games. Nights like this won’t help, especially with opportunities ticking away.

“If you’re gonna hunt that playoff spot, you can’t play like this,” Backstrom said. “We’ve gotta be better than this.”

Muller’s team was simply better, not just based on talent but effort. The Hurricanes took advantage of a banged-up Caps blue line featuring three rookies and executed the game plan to near perfection.

“I think our guys were smart with their puck placement here tonight,” Muller said. “I thought it was just an overall strong game on our part tonight.”

And a weak one for Washington, even if you take Oates’ tact that a soft early goal allowed by Braden Holtby put his group at a disadvantage. Playing from behind didn’t suit the Caps at all Tuesday.

Sometimes, the hustle wasn’t the issue, like when defenseman Jeff Schultz tried to get back for an icing touch-up but was beaten to the puck by forward Patrick Dwyer.

It turned into Nash’s second goal and Carolina’s third of the game.

“Schultzy’s going as hard as he can and the guy had just a little bit more jump off the play, little bit unlucky,” Oates said. “I would have actually probably thought Holts would have played it for him, but he was giving Schultzy the chance to win that battle and we lost it and we broke down after that.”

Schultz said he got beat because he went to the wrong side of the net. But Dwyer deserves the bulk of the credit for his hard work.

“You want to make sure you’re going hard on the forecheck, and he was in there and able to get body position and then made a great pass after that,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “That’s nice to see from our bench, and it was a big goal for us.”

By then, though, the Caps looked like toast. This wasn’t like a comeback from down 3-0 against the Boston Bruins on March 5 when there was a spark and plenty of time.

It was hard to envision that kind of effort against the Hurricanes, who could sense what they were up against.

“I think if you watched them play tonight,” defenseman Joe Corvo said, “it seems like they’re missing maybe some confidence.”

That’s not a good missing ingredient going into Thursday’s rematch that could determine whether the Caps are still in the hunt to capture the Southeast.

“Well, we supposed to be winning today,” Ovechkin said. “We try, but have no luck. It was not in our sight maybe. Something else.”

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

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