As bad as the Washington Capitals have been at times, they will wake up Wednesday only four points out of first place.
The Southeast Division is the weakling of the NHL in this compressed season, and a two-game surge — including Tuesday night's 3-0 win over the first-but-fading Carolina Hurricanes — has been enough to put the Capitals within decent range of recusing themselves from failure.
"We knew it was going to come around like this," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 33 saves for his fifth career shutout a day after signing a two-year contract extension. "So we were just being patient, learning what we needed to do, learning from our mistakes, and you can just see we're doing a good job."
The Capitals saw a few things they'd never seen before during Tuesday's game. Former teammate Alexander Semin was wearing another NHL uniform. Nicklas Backstrom fed John Erskine for a goal, the first time that's happened in their six seasons together. And Adam Oates has his first back-to-back wins by more than one goal in his fledging head coaching career, even though he says his players are only about "60-70 percent" toward getting his system down pat.
"It's still not automatic all the time," Oates said. "We have waves of it where it looks automatic, but then we shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit."
They did more than enough against the Hurricanes, who have lost four of five and are 0-5 against division opponents. Cam Ward, under pressure for much of the game behind a thin blue line beset by injuries, kept it from turning into an ugly rout by making 37 saves.
"Fatigue kicks in," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "Some guys are playing more minutes than they probably should, and it catches up."
Making his debut on the visitor's bench at the Verizon Center was Semin, who was booed and whooped derisively whenever he touched the puck. He ranks as the Capitals' No. 5 all-time goal-scorer and was often touted as having more natural talent than two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin, but his seven seasons in the nation's capital were marred by criticisms about his work ethic, a complaint voiced again by Washington forward Troy Brouwer on Monday.
The Capitals allowed Semin to depart via free agency last summer, and he appeared determined to show up his old team. He shot the puck more than anyone else in the first period — three on goal, two wide of the net. He had a solo breakaway on a penalty kill early that was thwarted when his shot ricocheted off Holtby's glove, giving the fans another excuse to let out a huge cheer.
"He made a good save on him," Muller said. "But it would have been different right there, actually, to get the lead, that first goal."
Semin finished with nine shots, including four on goal.
Backstrom scored on a first-period power play and found Erskine trailing the rush for a slap-shot goal 31 seconds into the second. Backstrom had 278 assists since entering the NHL with the Capitals in 2007. Erskine had nine goals in his seven seasons in Washington. This was the first Backstrom-to-Erskine goal.
"I don't know what to say about that," Backstrom said. "That's unfortunate. Or maybe fortunate, I don't know. ... We know he can punch a guy. He can shoot it, too."
Like Holtby, Erskine also signed a two-year contract extension on Monday.
"I'm sure they felt better," Oates said. "They both played good. Ersk got a big goal, and Braden got a shutout."
Notes: John Carlson scored in the third period for the Capitals. ... Washington has scored first in eight straight games. ... The Capitals had a season-high 40 shots on goal. ... Washington D Mike Green returned after missing three games with a lower-body injury. ... Because of uncertainty over the availability of Backstrom (illness) and LW Jason Chimera (lower body) after Monday's practice, the Capitals recalled F Casey Wellman from Hershey of the AHL. ... Carolina F Jeff Skinner (concussion) missed his fifth consecutive game, and D Jamie McBain (upper body) sat out his fourth straight.
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