Eric Staal and Trevor Letowski also scored, Scott Walker had two assists and Ward stopped 20 shots. The Conn Smythe Trophy winner after he led Carolina to the Stanley Cup title last season, Ward had two shutouts in the 2006 playoffs.
It was Cole's fourth career hat trick and first since an 8-2 win over Montreal on Jan. 31, 2006.
It also was his first multigoal game since March 4 against Pittsburgh, but that's a game Cole probably would rather forget. Later in that one, he was run over from behind by Brooks Orpik, breaking his neck in an injury that cost Cole three months.
This time, the Hurricanes scored on their first shot on goal when Walker burst down the right side on a 2-on-2 rush and passed to Cole, who tapped the puck past Brent Johnson at 5:47 of the first period.
Cole added his second goal on the power play with just under two minutes left in the second period. Staal took a pass from Bret Hedican beyond the right circle and blasted a shot that struck Cole and got past Johnson.
Cole completed the hat trick when his short backhand beat Johnson at 14:39 of the third period for his sixth goal of the season.
Johnson finished with 34 saves for the Capitals, who had their first two-game winning streak of the season snapped.
Staal and Letowski gave the Hurricanes some breathing room by scoring three minutes apart midway through the third period. It was Staal's team-leading 10th goal of the season.
The Hurricanes, the NHL's best team on home ice last season, were just happy to see some familiar surroundings. They spent most of the season's first month on the road and played only their sixth game at the RBC Center, where they improved to 3-2-1.
They kept Washington's offense in check. The Capitals went nearly 15 minutes between shots on goal during a stretch in the first and second periods, and Carolina finished with 39 shots to the Capitals' 20.
Notes: Cole has recorded points in three straight games. ... Before the game, the Capitals recalled D John Erskine from their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey. ... The Capitals ended their three-game winless streak against Carolina when they won 5-2 on Oct. 7 in the only previous meeting of the season. ... Carolina D Tim Gleason (shoulder) missed his fifth straight game. D David Tanabe was a healthy scratch. Scratches for Washington were defenseman Jamie Heward and centres Brooks Laich and Kris Beech.