WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, every game the Washington Capitals play is the biggest game of their season.
After a five-game road trip in which each game took on more importance, the Capitals stumbled again on their return to the Verizon Center, going down 4-3 in overtime to the team hot on their tails for the eight seed in the Eastern Conference, the Winnipeg Jets.
With the Caps clinging to a one-goal lead entering the third period, the ice became decidedly titled in favor of the Jets.
But in front of 18,506 fans, the Capitals could only play rope-a-dope for so long, eventually surrendering the tying goal to Spencer Machacek at the 16:15 mark of the third period.
Tim Stapleton scored the game-winner for Winnipeg 2:37 into the extra session, against a fatigued Capitals quartet on an extended shift.
“We never should have lost to that team,” Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We were out-playing them through the first, at least I thought.
“We were burying all our chances and doing a pretty good job shutting them down. And we just fell apart, pretty much.
“It was embarrassing. Embarrassing loss,” Alzner lamented.
Winnipeg out-shot Washington 19-2 in the third period and overtime. The Jets bounced back from a 3-0 second period deficit, controlling play after falling behind by three and scoring two goals of their own before the second intermission.
Washington and Buffalo, which won on Friday, are tied for the eighth spot in the East with 82 points with seven games left.
The Capitals and Sabres face each other Tuesday at Verizon Center. Winnipeg (78 points, eight games left) lags behind Washington and Buffalo. The Capitals are four points back of the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, who possess a game in hand.
Throughout the season, the Capitals have had a penchant of surrendering a lot of shots and spending more time in the defensive zone than the offensive zone.
Those habits continued against a desperate Winnipeg team on the fringes of the playoff race. The Capitals spent the vast majority of the third period in their own zone chasing the Jets around. Winnipeg out-shot Washington 42-23 overall.
“You kind of put your tail between your legs there when a team presses as hard as they did, and we were just trying to get the puck out,” Alzner said.
“You want to get the puck out, but when there’s time to make plays, you gotta make the plays. They didn’t give us too many chances to, but when we did, we were just throwing it out.
“We knew how big it was for us to finish ‘em off, and we [messed] the bed.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in the second period, his 34th and 35th of the season, from the left wing circle. One a wrist shot from at the 1:42 mark in which Ovechkin used Jets defenseman Mark Stuart as a screen, the other a snap shot at the 5:47 mark off a pass from Mathieu Perreault.
The Capitals also got a breakaway goal in the first period from Jason Chimera, his career-best 18th of the year.
Ben Maxwell with his first goal of the season and Bryan Little (no. 22 of the season) got the Jets back in the game shortly after Ovechkin’s second marker.
“I actually thought we controlled the pace of the hockey game the first 30 minutes,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich said.
“I thought our puck control was good. I thought our d-men did a good job controlling the puck in our zone and the neutral zone. And we really didn’t give them a whole lot until they got that first goal.
“Then they got that second one, and then they really started to feel their game. Then guys like [Blake] Wheeler and [Evander] Kane, they get their legs going, they’re into the hockey game a little bit more, whereas in the first 30 minutes, they were stifled a bit.”
Capitals head coach Dale Hunter lamented that the Capitals couldn’t capitalize on more of the scoring chances that they had when they were controlling play in the first half of the game.
“We should’ve been up more goals,” said Hunter.
“It was one of those things where their goalie stood on his head early and kept them in the game and kept ‘em to three goals. It could’ve been more.”
Jeff Halpern skated just 4:35 and Keith Aucoin skated 6:09. “Our fourth line didn’t do the job, so a couple of them sat down,” Hunter said. … Washington was playing the second of a back-to-back, which may have contributed to the team’s struggle to keep up with the Jets late in the game. …The Capitals played in Philadelphia Thursday night, a game which ended in a shootout loss. “I noticed a few guys were getting pretty tired,” Alzner said. “All the games this year have been hard against [Winnipeg], so that’s an ugly back-to-back for us.” … Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth made 38 saves. … Washington next plays Sunday at 5 p.m. against Minnesota at Verizon Center.