WASHINGTON – A 22-point swing in 28 days between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes.
Almost one month to the day after their playoff hopes appeared buried following a home shutout loss to the then-surging Hurricanes, the can't-go-wrong Capitals came full circle in the game of role reversal Thursday night, winning their sixth straight and extending free-falling Carolina's skid to seven with a 3-1 victory.
"It's funny how things kind of work themselves around," said Troy Brouwer, who scored a pair of goals. "It's onto the other foot. They've had some struggles in the second half of the season, and we've been playing extremely good hockey."
Brouwer and Mike Green scored second-period goals, Brouwer added an empty-netter, and Braden Holtby made 43 saves for the Southeast Division leaders, who remained two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets in what has become a two-team race to win the NHL's weakest division.
How meager is the Southeast this year? The Capitals are 13-3-0 within the division and 9-14-2 against the rest of the league.
"Because of our division and the way the points are falling right now, it might be a division lead or we're out of the playoffs," Brouwer said. "So to put that much more distance between us and a division rival is very important for us. ... We know they're on their last legs as far as making the playoffs."
Jeff Skinner scored in the first period, and Justin Peters had 28 stops for the Hurricanes, who now trail the Capitals by 12 points — an incredible turnabout from the 10-point lead they held after a 4-0 win over the Washington at the Verizon Center on March 12.
"We definitely deserve a different fate over these past 12, 13 games," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "It's not there, but this is a learning thing for them and we have to stay the course."
It's almost impossible to exaggerate the changes in fortunes. The 4-0 loss was Washington's third straight — all by a three-goal margin or greater — and Nicklas Backstrom said the effort wasn't good enough, calling the team's play "embarrassing." Carolina's Joe Corvo said the Capitals appeared to be lacking confidence.
It went from bad to worse for Washington, albeit temporarily, on March 14 when the Hurricanes took a 2-0 lead in a rematch in Raleigh.
But the Capitals rallied for a 3-2 win and have been nearly indestructible since. The victory started a 12-3-1 surge for Washington, while the loss kicked off a 1-13-1 dive for injury-depleted Carolina.
For 10 minutes on Thursday, it actually looked as though the Hurricanes were the playoff-bound team fending off the also-rans. Carolina was outshooting Washington 14-0 until Peters was finally tested by Alex Ovechkin's slap shot on a power play with 9:55 left in the first period.
The Hurricanes were able to get only one goal out of it, however, and it came on a 4-on-3 power play. Eric Staal's shot from the right circle yielded a juicy rebound for Skinner to give Carolina the lead.
Jay Harrison nearly made it 2-0 with a slap shot that actually beat Holtby in the final minute of the period, but defenseman John Carlson cleared the puck off the line after it trickled between the goalie's legs.
"I didn't know that we didn't have a shot the first 10 minutes," Carlson said. "We were getting outplayed, but after a while we found ourselves only down one goal and obviously Holtsy was big for us in keeping us in the game until we got our own energy."
It wasn't long before the Capitals were again the dominant team, and their shots tally caught up to Carolina's by midway through the second period. Mike Ribeiro set up Brouwer for a one-timer from the right circle during a power play, and Mike Green scored from nearly the same spot with a wrister high to Peters' stick side.
It was left to Holtby to hold the lead, and he was tested often in the third period. His last tough save came when he used his stick to deflect Jiri Tlusty's blast in the final 2 minutes, a different ending from that shellacking the Hurricanes gave the Capitals nearly a month ago.
"I can't even remember that — it's been so long, we've played so many games in such a short period of time," Washington's Matt Hendricks said. "But we've really improved."
Notes: Washington's winning streak is its longest since a seven-game run to open the 2011-12 season. ... While the 4-0 loss was a blight, the Capitals still won the season series 4-1.
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP