Friday, March 11, 2011 9:49 p.m.
Updated at 11:02 p.m.
CAPITALS PAGE CAPITALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
As captivating as the Washington Capitals' 14-game winning streak was last year, it didn't exactly come at the most important time of the season. By the time the playoffs rolled around, that franchise-record streak was an afterthought.
So in some ways, the Capitals' current seven-game run -- which they extended Friday night with a 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes -- might be considered a more impressive feat. Not only are the Caps playing their best hockey of the season, they're doing it just weeks before the playoffs begin.
"I think we're all happy it's not November right now, or December throwing this streak together," winger Mike Knuble said. "I think we want to really start playing well towards the end of the year."
The Capitals aren't just winning games. They're winning nip-and-tuck games, tense affairs with playoff-like atmospheres that show a team's true mettle. Amazingly, 11 of their last 13 victories have come by one goal.
That was the case again Friday night, when the Caps spotted the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead entering the third period but stormed back to tie and then take the lead within the first eight minutes of the final stanza.
"It's kind of become maybe a little bit of a character-builder for us," said Matt Hendricks, who scored the game-winner. "Looking back the past few years in Washington, there hasn't been a whole lot of adversity. Guys are really coming to play. We're fighting to the end of the game and we're pulling out those one-goal games. It's a lot like playoff hockey."
Hendricks' go-ahead goal came with 12:36 to play after he trailed teammate Jason Arnott down the ice following a turnover and flicked the rebound of Arnott's missed shot past a sprawling Cam Ward in net.
"That's what he does," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He is going to get those dirty goals, in the crease. He's not going to get those end-to-end goals. ... I'm happy for him, because he works really hard all the time and he deserves some success offensively."
Leading for the first time all night, the Capitals once again turned to Braden Holtby to seal this victory. And once again, the rookie goaltender came through with a brilliant performance.
Holtby, pressed into service after both Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth suffered injuries, made 40 saves, allowing only Tuomo Ruutu's second-period goal through two defenders and a screen by Carolina's Eric Staal. That snapped a shutout streak of more than 156 minutes for Holtby, who has now successfully swatted away 174 of the last 178 shots he's faced.
Ever the perfectionist, the 21-year-old net-minder still managed to find fault with a few things.
"I'm getting a lot of breaks right now," he said. "I'm seeing the puck fairly well, but there are still some things I'm getting away with that I shouldn't be doing."
Perfect or not, Holtby is riding the same wave this re-energized Capitals squad has been on since last month's trade deadline. They're now 6-0 since acquiring Arnott, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm.
In the process, the Caps have surged into first place in the Southeast Division, owners now of a four-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who suffered a bad 2-1 loss to Ottawa Friday night.
"It was a real shot in the arm for all the players," Knuble said. "GM George McPhee showed his players that he's listening and he's watching. He knows his team and he made the proper steps to help us move forward. I think the players love that he did it."Contact Mark Zuckerman at email@example.com.
You can watch a live stream of the Caps-Blackhawks game on Sunday by clicking here.