The Capitals' center, skidding across the ice on the seat of his pants after tangling with Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward, still managed to move the puck across to Matt Hendricks for a controversial first-period goal that was the difference until the final minutes as Washington spoiled Carolina's long-awaited home opener with a 3-0 win on Wednesday night.
"I don't think its a goal," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "I'm not looking for a penalty. There are a bunch of different situations. If he rolls over your goaltender, then it's a penalty. I didn't feel in [the official's] argument that Cam was expanding out into the player, in which case the player has the right to his own ice. But for me he didn't. So I didn't agree with the call at all. He started with his heels in the paint. If he came out, he came out an inch."
Ward was sharp throughout, robbing Alex Ovechkin with the shaft of his stick on a Caps power play in the second period, but many of his teammates seemed to labor up and down the ice. Chances jumped off sticks, rebounds hid in skate blades, and Canes players looked up at the rafters or smacked their sticks against the boards with frustration.
"It took us a couple minutes to get our legs back into it," captain Eric Staal acknowledged. "For everybody it was probably a tougher game, in that respect, than we've had all year. Just getting the legs going, getting the heart rate back up. Sometimes it's tough coming off a road trip like that. But we got into it, I thought we were close."
It's hard to get closer than Staal did as a power play ended midway through the second period. Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth flashed his glove to snare Staal's hard slap shot. Neuvirth's shutout came fairly easy, however, as his defense effectively collapsed in front of him to clear rebounds. The Canes did the rest to themselves, missing chances to get the puck on net, none more golden than when Chad LaRose, who was looking at an open goal, couldn't keep the puck on his stick blade with 13 minutes to play.
Nicklas Backstrom potted a rebound a few minutes later, and added an empty-net goal after the Canes pulled Cam Ward in the final minutes to cap the scoring. Ovechkin, brilliantly held in check throughout by Joe Corvo, was unnoticeable throughout the game, managing only the second assist on Backstrom's first marker.
This season, there will be games like this one, as the young Hurricanes experience the grind of a long season. Coach Maurice waxed philosophical about the team's effort, "If you play that game in the middle of the season, I might be a little bit grumpier about the effort. But I don't think that's what it was. They were saying the right things on the bench."
"We stayed in the fight against a good team. The bodies just weren't doing what the brains wanted them to do."