Washington Capitals' Marcus Johansson (90) of Sweden, celebrates his goal against the Carolina Hurricanes during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Washington, Tuesday, March 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
WASHINGTON - The Carolina Hurricanes went into the third period Tuesday night down a goal, with their playoff hopes on the line.
Then Jeff Skinner found the net, and the Hurricanes ended up with a win and a much smaller gap between them and the playoffs.
Skinner tied the game early in the third period with a little luck, then scored in the shootout with a lot of skill to lead the Hurricanes to a 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals.
Carolina entered the game ninth in the Eastern Conference, five points behind Buffalo for the final playoff spot. With the shootout win and the Sabres' 4-3 loss at Toronto, Carolina pulled two points closer.
"We got a little help, now we go back at it," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "We go home with some emotion and some excitement now, and feeling good about being right back in it."
Skinner evened the score at 2-2 less than two minutes into the third period, when his seemingly innocuous shot knuckled past Washington goalie Semyon Varlamov.
"I was just trying to get it on net," Skinner said. "There was just a little bit of space there so I just took it in and tried to put it on net, and luckily it went in."
His coach was willing to give Skinner a bit more benefit of the doubt.
"This Skinner kid's a pretty special shooter," Maurice said. "So before I qualify that shot as not real strong—he's put enough by goalies from strange angles, that now you just accept it and say maybe he saw it."
Carolina held on the rest of the third period and overtime to force the shootout. Skinner opened the shootout with a goal, and Tuomo Ruutu converted the deciding attempt after Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were stopped by Carolina goalie Cam Ward, who had 38 saves.
"I think we were a much better team in the third period, and I think we deserved two points tonight," said Jussi Jokinen, who scored Carolina's first goal.
Alexander Semin scored his 27th goal and had an assist, and Marcus Johansson also scored for Washington, which ended a five-game home winning streak. The Capitals had won the previous five meetings between the teams this season.
Ovechkin was back in the lineup after missing three games due to an undisclosed injury. Ovechkin hadn't played since March 18 due to what Washington coach Bruce Boudreau termed a "nagging ailment."
"It was pretty hard when you come back after three games sitting out," Ovechkin said. "But every shift, every period I felt better and better."
Ovechkin made his presence felt right away for the Capitals, getting the team's first shot on a backhanded attempt in the opening minute. He didn't shy away from contact throughout the game, getting several hard hits in on the Hurricanes.
"I think it was like a playoff game, for them," Ovechkin said. "For us, it is good when we play against those kinds of teams, to prepare us for the playoffs."
Washington has its playoff spot locked up. The Capitals hold the second place in the Eastern Conference and entered the day seven points ahead of Tampa Bay for the Southeast Division lead.
"We have to be able to compete and beat any team that's going to come hard, because everyone is going to be fighting for their lives in the playoffs," Washington defenceman John Carlson said. "I feel like at some points in the game we were just coasting a bit instead of pushing the envelope and that's what bit us in the end."
Carolina opened the scoring on Jokinen's power-play goal at 2:29 in the second period. Joe Corvo set up the goal with a pass from behind the net, and Jokinen poked it in.
The Hurricanes had a chance to extend their lead when Chad LaRose was awarded a penalty shot after being held up by Dennis Wideman on a short-handed breakaway. Varlamov came out to contest the penalty attempt and poked away the puck with his stick for the save.
Washington tied the game at 14:18 in the second period, when Semin threaded a tight-angle shot from below the right circle over Ward's shoulder.
A little more than three minutes later, Johansson got behind the Hurricanes' defence after a pass from Semin and made a move on Ward for his 13th goal of the season.
After the game, Boudreau said his team lacked emotion at times, but he didn't believe the Capitals could afford to coast through the final stretch of the regular season.
"We still have a lot to play for," Boudreau said. "We're not, by any stretch or means, taking a vacation until the playoffs."
Notes: Washington is 11-2-1 in March. ... Carolina D Joni Pitkanen returned after missing one game due to illness. ... Capitals C Jason Arnott also returned after missing six games with a lower body injury. ... Wideman gingerly skated off the ice with about five minutes left in the second period after taking a hard hit from Ruutu. He did not return. "He's OK," Boudreau said after the game. "It's day-to-day right now."