Caps rally past Canes in third period to clinch spot in playoffs

So this is the way it’s going to be for the Carolina Hurricanes the rest of the way.

Every game pressure-packed. No more Storm Surges at PNC Arena. Nothing but a grim focus on winning, on the finish line, on trying to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.

After back-to-back wins last weekend over the Minnesota Wild and Montreal Canadiens, the Canes seemed playoff-bound, the odds heavily stacked in their favor. And then ...

A loss to Washington on the road Tuesday was a downer for the Canes. Even worse for the Canes was a 3-2 loss to the Caps on Thursday at PNC Arena that clinched a playoff spot for Washington while leaving the Canes to scramble even more.

“It hurts a ton,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Guys are devastated. They know what’s at stake.”

The Canes loss, combined with the Columbus Blue Jackets topping the Montreal Canadiens 6-2 left the Eastern Conference playoff race this tight: Carolina (42-28-7) in the first wild-card position with 91 points, the Blue Jackets in the second wild-card spot with 90 and the Canadiens also with 90 points but having played one more game than Columbus.

“We played really well. I thought it was a great game,” Brind’Amour said. “I felt like certainly we were invested. Everyone played hard. They gave everything they had. It just didn’t go our way.

“That’s hockey. It happens. You don’t always get the bounces, that’s for sure. It’s just tough this time of year.”

The Caps (46-24-8) got the bounce it needed when Nic Dowd redirected a Nick Jensen point shot past goalie Curtis McElhinney with 4:56 left in regulation. The Caps had trailed 2-1 entering the third period but quickly tied it on Jakub Vrana’s goal, Vrana showing off his speed.

Goalie Braden Holtby stood tall for the Caps in the third, thwarting the Canes on a handful of quality scoring chances. The Caps also killed off a Brooks Orpik tripping penalty late in the third as the Canes failed to score on the power play for a ninth straight game.

Nino Niederreiter scored for the Canes in the first -- a goal quickly countered by the Caps’ Brett Connolly -- and Warren Foegele gave Carolina a 2-1 lead in the second with a nifty power move past Jensen and shot that beat Holtby.

“We’ve got to find a way to win these tight games,” Canes center Sebastian Aho said. “I think the effort was there and we had a lot of chances to win this game.”

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Nino Niederreiter (21) tries to score on Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as Capitals’ Tom Wilson (43) defends during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 28, 2019. Gerry Broome AP

The Caps played with good patience on Tuesday in the 4-1 win, allowing the Canes to be overaggressive and make thebig mistakes. But both teams were patient Thursday in more of a grinding game.

Niederreiter’s goal in the first was all effort. At full speed he gathered the puck off a skate, avoided Holtby and scored after falling at the post, extending to tip the puck in.

It was Niederreiter’s 13th goal in his 31 games with the Canes but the 1-0 lead lasted 42 seconds as Connolly scored his 22nd of the season with a top-shelf shot from the slot.

The Caps played without forward T.J. Oshie, who played and scored Tuesday but was out sick Thursday. But the Caps’ depth scoring, and they have a lot of it, made up for Oshie’s absence.

“We’ll regroup and come back at it tomorrow,” Brind’Amour said. “I think if we play like that in our remaining games we’ll be in good shape.”

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.