WASHINGTON -- After starting the season with two wins in their first 11 games, the Washington Capitals knew their road to a sixth straight playoff appearance would be steep and treacherous.
They continued that climb Tuesday night when center Nicklas Backstrom scored a goal and set up defenseman John Erskine for another in a hard-fought 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center.
Defenseman John Carlson also scored for the Capitals, who played a strong game in front of goaltender Braden Holtby, who picked up his second shutout of the season and fifth of his career with 33 saves.
The Capitals' win was their second straight over a top-eight team in the Eastern Conference and improved them to 5-2-0 in their last seven games. They are 7-10-1 overall.
"It's getting there," Capitals first-year coach Adam Oates said. "The guys are realizing the more they play as a unit and do the right things and support each other, they're in way better position to make the next play. It's just not clockwork yet. It's not automatic."
The Hurricanes (9-8-1) lost for the fourth time in five games.
"This is a tough place to play," said Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo, who played for the Capitals in 2009-10. "They're all over you the whole time. They don't give you much time."
The Capitals outshot the Hurricanes 40-33, but for the first time this season, Alex Ovechkin was held without a shot.
"It goes to show that when you do things right, everybody gets their chances," Oates said.
All eyes were on Hurricanes right wing Alexander Semin at the start of the game. The former Capitals star recorded 197 goals over seven seasons in Washington before signing a one-year, $7 million contract with the Canes last summer.
Semin was booed every time he touched the puck, but he brought the fans to the edge of their seats with a short-handed breakaway less than three minutes into the game. Holtby got his pad on Semin's wrist shot to keep the game scoreless and get the fans on their feet.
"A really skilled player like that you just have to be as patient as possible," said Holtby, who improved to 6-6-0. "I don't think he shot it exactly where he wanted to."
A few minutes later, a Jussi Jokinen holding penalty on Ovechkin gave the Capitals their second power play of the night, and Backstrom converted at the 7:21 mark.
The Caps entered the night with 12 power-play goals in their previous nine games, and some precision passing from Mike Green to Ovechkin to Mike Ribeiro allowed Backstrom to free himself in the slot, where he deposited a pass from Ribeiro past Cam Ward for his second goal of the season.
"Before we were losing games because of our power play," Backstrom said. "Now we're winning because of it."
Washington made it 2-0 just 31 seconds into the second period when Backstrom feathered a cross-ice pass to Erskine, who blasted a heavy slap shot off Ward's right pad and into the net. It was Erskine's second goal of the season and first ever in 28 career games against Carolina.
"We know he can punch a guy," Backstrom said of Erskine, "and he showed he can shoot it, too."
NOTES: The Hurricanes have been outscored 21-7 in first periods this season. ... The Hurricanes were without center Jeff Skinner (concussion), defenseman Jamie McBain (upper body) and defenseman Joni Pitkanen (lower body). ... Green returned to the Capitals' lineup after missing the previous three games with a lower-body injury. Green took the place of Jeff Schultz, who was a healthy scratch, and saw 21:54 of ice time. ... The Capitals' power-play goal in the first period marked the ninth time in 10 games they've scored on the man-advantage. ... The Hurricanes return home for their next two games, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and the Florida Panthers on Saturday. The Capitals hit the road for their next two, visiting the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday and the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.