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Pro Hockey: Caps losing edge at wrong time

BY ZAC BOYER

WASHINGTON—The frenzy reached a peak midway through the second period, when Brooks Laich and Jim Slater headed to the penalty box for fighting. The Washington Capitals held a three-goal lead, and Winnipeg could do nothing to counteract it.

For weeks, the Capitals had carried on a message of playing playoff hockey, knowing full well the precarious nature of their standing in the Eastern Conference and how one misstep could be magnified with so many teams searching for the postseason.

The Jets were among those teams. Losers of four of their last six following a midseason resurgence that put them within striking distance of an Eastern Conference playoff berth, they entered Friday night’s game against their Southeast Division opponent at the Verizon Center understanding the urgency of a victory.

“I saw us go into desperation mode,” said Winnipeg’s Tim Stapleton. “I don’t think I’ve really seen that all year between us. We were just pressing and pressing, and we stuck to the game plan, just throwing shots on net.”

What resulted could be cataclysmic for the Capitals, who, if they understood the nature of playoff hockey, didn’t play like it. They lost, 4–3, in overtime to the Jets, succumbing to Stapleton’s winner 2:37 into the extra period and failing to put away a team not only in the context of the game, but the season as well.

“It’s tough,” Laich said. “A commanding lead, a 3–0 lead, and then a couple mistakes? We’ve got to play with a little more composure than that and protect that lead and win that hockey game.”

Washington (37–30–8) is still in possession of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, earning a point for the overtime loss and holding a tiebreaker over Buffalo with two weeks left in the season.

The team has now lost four of its last five games after a four-game win streak; the Jets (35–31–8), presumably out of it with a loss, still lurk four points back.

Unlike the Capitals, who shortened their bench because of a lack of production, Winnipeg’s depth was the factor. All three players on their fourth line—Stapleton, Ben Maxwell and Spencer Machacek—scored a goal, as well as top center Bryan Little, who beat Michal Neuvirth little more than a minute after Maxwell did midway through the second period.

The third period didn’t get any better. The Capitals were outshot 17–2 over the final 20 minutes, and Machacek, a rookie, completed the comeback with 3:45 to play with his first goal.

Washington entered the game with a 22–0 record when leading after two periods. The Jets, owners of the third-worst road record in the league, hadn’t won any of the 25 games when they trailed after two.

“Nothing I can say,” said Alex Ovechkin, whose pair of goals in the first six minutes of the second period pushed the Capitals’ lead to three. “It’s stupid play by us, and we just totally stop playing after when they score first goal. And we played so difference of style of hockey in the third period, so they just put puck deep and get pressure and they score another one.”

Jason Chimera scored the Capitals’ first goal 16:06 into the first period, marking his 18th of the year and a new career high. After Ovechkin’s pair—his ninth in the last nine games—Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec was impenetrable, stopping 20 shots on the night. Michal Neuvirth, in goal for the Capitals for the first time in three games, stopped 38.

As has been the case for the past four weeks, the opportunities were there. They just weren’t seized.

“We should have been up more goals,” coach Dale Hunter said. “We were right down the gut four or five times. We should have been up more and we wouldn’t have had this problem. It was one of those things where their goalie stood on his head early and kept them in the game, kept [us] to three goals. It could have been more.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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