WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Hurricanes played the Capitals as if their season was on the line.
In the tightly contested Southeast Division, it's going to take that type of effort every night to make it to the postseason.
"I'm sure there'll be a lot of jockeying going on down the stretch unless someone can peel off eight or nine in a row. ... It will probably be a lot of movement in the division, in our conference," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "It's just the way it's going to be. We know it. We're ready for it. This is our playoffs now."
Cam Ward made 33 saves for Carolina, which withstood 13 shots in the third period to snap a two-game skid.
Alexander Semin tallied for Washington, which had won eight of 11 to grab the top spot in the division but wasted an opportunity to expand its lead. Instead, the Capitals had a two-game winning streak halted and swapped places with the Hurricanes in the conference standings.
"We haven't played a game of this magnitude for a long time," Washington defenseman Mike Green said. "We understand ... how important these games are. Next time we're in this situation, we'll be ready."
Laviolette hopes his Hurricanes will start taking command of the divisional race.
"You'd like to see the wins come more consistently. Win one, lose one, win two, lose two," he said. "That's not going to be good enough."
Alex Ovechkin was held without a point for the 11th time in 56 games this season. Ovechkin's 46 goals leads the Capitals and his next will surpass his total from 2006-07.
"If you can shut [Ovechkin] down or contain him a little bit, you're going to be successful against these guys," Cole said.
Ovechkin's best chance came late in the second period, when he was sprung on a power-play breakaway. But he was ridden to the ice by defenseman Bret Hedican in front of the crease and crashed into Ward, who slid backward and knocked the net off its moorings before the puck could dribble across the goal line.
Despite a 34-23 overall edge in shots, the Capitals didn't play like division leaders or playoff contenders for much of the night. They had trouble generating scoring chances, committed turnovers that led to odd-man rushes and squandered seven power plays, including a two-man advantage lasting 1:10 in the second period.
"0-for-7 on the power play defines what this game is about," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You have to make teams pay if they're going to take that many penalties against us. It's been a recurring problem the last few games."
Cole's 12th goal, his first in nine games, gave the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead 3:56 into the game. He skated down the right wing, breezed by Washington's Milan Jurcina, pulled Brent Johnson down and out and pushed the puck in with his right hand.
Carolina made use of its speed advantage at 14:47 when Ladd, skating down the left side on a 3-on-2 break, converted Sergei Samsonov's right-wing rebound for his sixth goal of the year.
The Capitals pressured in the third period and Semin's strong individual effort ruined Ward's shutout bid with 10:16 left in the game.
Semin circled the zone from behind the net, picked up his own rebound from a blocked shot in the right circle and swatted in a backhander at the right post.
Washington pulled Johnson late, but the extra-man advantage evaporated when Semin was called with slashing with 28 seconds remaining.
"It was a great individual effort. [Semin] did a good job there," Boudreau said. "But he also took a selfish penalty at the end of the game. Does one offset the other?"
The Capitals had not been in first place in the Southeast Division this late in a season since March 13, 2003. ... Washington D John Erskine left with flu symptoms after two early shifts. ... Carolina is 1-1 on a five-game road trip.