All the talk heading into Tuesday night's Capitals-Hurricanes game centered around the return of longtime Washington winger Alexander Semin to Verizon Center, but in the end, he wasn't a factor in the outcome.
Braden Holtby made 33 saves to give the Caps an important two points in a 3-0 win over Carolina and compress the entire Southeast Division to just four points separating five teams.
Semin had a chance to be a hero early on with a shorthanded 2-on-0 break, and he moved in with Eric Staal on Holtby. But Staal fell back and allowed the Russian to take the shot alone instead of allowing him the passing option. Holtby stood his ground on the shot, making a glove save, and denying Semin's best chance for his first career goal against Washington.
"That was a pretty classy move that Eric had there," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "Has the breakaway and lays it up to [Semin] to give him the opportunity to be the hero early on in the game. But [Holtby] made the save."
"Any really skilled player like that you have to be as patient as you can," Holtby explained afterwards. "I don;'t think he shot it exactly where he wanted to, but you try to be patient."
From that save on, the Capitals seemed to slowly turn the tide against a depleted Carolina team that came into the night leading the Southeast Division.
"I was pretty happy," Washington defenseman John Carlson said of Holtby's save. "I don't any bad blood against [Semin], or anything like that, but you don't want him to come into here and score. We had a good few first shifts, but once we had that breakdown and he stopped it, they felt the same way."
After Washington took a 1-0 lead into the dressing room thanks to Nicklas Backstrom's power-play tally, the Capitals poured it on, leavingHurricanes netminder Cam Ward to make some terrific saves to keep his club within striking distance, including a terrific glove save on the goal line on a Joel Ward shot.
"The second period, the first 10 minutes was just crazy," Holtby said. "Cam Ward stood on his head, it was the only reason it was even close. It's by far the best I've seen us play, probably since I've been in the organization in that 10 minute span. That was outstanding."
"[Ward] played really well, especially in the second to keep us in there," Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo said. "He definitely gave us a chance."
Despite Ward's highlight save, the Caps were just too much for the visiting Hurricanes on this night, registering a season-high 40 shots on goal, as John Erskine and Carlson added goals to give Washington the 3-0 win.
Afterwards, Capitals players said they have noticed an improvement in the team's play as of late, as Washington has rebounded from a disastrous start to win four of their last six games and tighten the gap in its playoff chase.
"I love the ice time, it's fun in this system," Erskine said. "[Oates] lets us jump up in the play more as long as we're safe about it, and it gives us moreoffensive chances."
"We got forwards coming back and help us out, Holtby is playing awesome, and everything's just clicking," he added.
"I think we're getting more chances, and we know what we're doing out there, and that's a big, big key I think to get this working," Backstrom said. "It's been looking good the last couple of games. Hopefully we can get rolling here."
The Caps can make things even closer Wednesday night when they visit Philadelphia.
"I don't think it was a statement game, I think we're taking one game at a time right now," Erskine said afterwards. "We have 30 games to go, and take one game a night and get as many points as we can until the final."
And, in the end, despite all the pre-game chatter about the return of an old Washington star, Holtby and the Capitals defense held Semin at bay by keeping a body between him and the net, and didn't mean a lot in the end.
"Definitely my generation, I don't think that would have happened, it's more social media, the way people talk and Twitter, it's different," Oates said. "The guy came in, the fans booed him, it happens to players.
"It's a difficult situation, player's been on a team for a while, move and I thought both teams did a good job of ignoring it."