RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Washington tied Carolina in the third period, Paul Maurice implored the Hurricanes to stay positive -- even if they had to pretend.
When Eric Staal broke the tie with 4:09 left, the power of positive thinking not only helped Carolina beat Washington 3-1 on Sunday, but it gave Maurice his first victory in his second stint with the club.
"Sometimes you have to fake it," Maurice said. "Everybody's aware that after goals there's been a big sag, so we've talked about having guys get up on the bench and start barking, start talking. Even if you feel a little insecure at that time, you have to fake it sometimes."
On the winner, Staal dug out the puck from behind the net, moved to the front and fired a backhander past goalie Jose Theodore on the short side.
"You don't want to give them any points," Staal said. "It was a gritty win. I thought we competed extremely hard. We'll take it."
Ray Whitney completed the scoring with 2:02 to go with his second goal of the game.
Carolina had lost three in a row, the last two after Maurice took over for the fired Peter Laviolette on Wednesday.
Michael Leighton stopped Capitals star Alex Ovechkin on a penalty shot with 1.2 seconds left in the second period and finished with 38 saves. Maurice gave Leighton a pep talk after Saturday's 2-1 overtime loss to Philadelphia.
"I just explained to him exactly how this game was going to go tonight," Maurice said. "They were going to come and he was going to have to be the difference in the game. The upside would be that if he could do that for us, we would look at it as three out of four points and that he was a big, big part of it.
"Good for him because it was a challenge, and I think he took it the right way."
The Capitals squandered a chance to move eight points ahead of the Hurricanes and instead have a four-point edge in the Southeast Division.
"That's why I'm so frustrated right now," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I thought we would have been in a good position right now. We're four back and it's a dogfight again."
Carolina scored first for the first time in 13 games when Whitney controlled Joni Pitkanen's rebound and stuffed it past an outstretched Theodore with 6:42 remaining in the first period.
Washington tied it in the third. Pitkanen was called for hooking and Ryan Bayda was penalized for delay of game, giving the Capitals a two-man advantage for 1:09. Carolina killed off the first penalty, but just as Pitkanen stepped on the ice, Ovechkin found Backstrom near the right faceoff circle. Backstrom blasted the puck past Leighton's glove.
With Carolina on the power play late in the second period, Ovechkin corralled a loose puck in his own zone and charged ahead on a breakaway. Pitkanen pursued, hooking Ovechkin from behind. Ovechkin was awarded a penalty shot, but Leighton stayed with the reigning NHL MVP, forcing him to shoot the puck into his right pad.
Ovechkin is 0-for-5 on penalty shots in his career.
"I'll be the last one to give him a tip on how to score," Boudreau said. "All I know is that if it doesn't work, don't do it again. Whatever his thought process is, if it's not working, let's try something new."
Scott Walker returned to action for Carolina after missing four games with a leg injury. ... Carolina recalled defenseman Brett Carson from Albany before the game. To make room, the Hurricanes put goalie Cam Ward (groin) on injured reserve. ... Washington recalled forward Alexandre Giroux from Hershey before the game. Giroux leads the AHL in scoring. ... Carolina defenseman Niclas Wallin (lower-body injury) didn't play. ... Carolina defenseman Anton Babchuk left the game because of a right arm injury. He did not return.