The Winnipeg Jets had their new-found confidence sorely tested Wednesday night in Washington, but they managed to come out with it largely intact.
The Jets came into Washington having won three games at home last week, including beating the Capitals 4-1. And for days Jets head coach Claude Noel had been talking about how the team was starting to learn how to compete and how to win.
But that will to win to win came under fire from a charged-up Washington team that was looking to not only avenge last week’s loss at the MTS Centre, but also get back on track after going 1-3-1 in its last five games.
The Jets didn’t manage to win Wednesday, losing 4-3 in overtime, but they withstood waves of withering attacks by the Capitals and still came away with a point. The overtime loss brought their record to 8-9-4 and 20 points. Still only four behind the Capitals.
“I thought we played a pretty decent game,” Noel said afterward. The Capitals “played a lot differently tonight. They responded to the crowd. I thought we responded good.”
The Capitals came out flying, no doubt hoping to offset the recent slump as well as the slow start to the season by Alex Ovechkin, who still has only seven goals this season. They were also trying to shake off recent drama involving Alexander Semin, who was benched Monday for poor play, and Joel Ward, who was benched Wednesday for sleeping in and missing a team meeting.
Many of those concerns vanished 5 minutes 23 seconds into the game when Semin scored after a pass from Ovechkin on a 2-on-1 breakaway. The goal, and Semin’s strong play throughout the game, made up for what had been a testy relationship between Semin and his teammates and coach Bruce Boudreau.
“Of course I wanted to win. I wanted to play great,” Semin said after the game through a Russian translator. “At the same time, I wanted to play my game out there and play exactly like I did before the last game.”
Boudreau also praised the big forward, saying after the game that he thought Semin “played a really good game.”
The Capitals kept pouring it on, but Winnipeg didn’t let the game slip away. The Jets never led but they tied it three times, including late in the third period on a goal by Bryan Little. The game ended less than two minutes into overtime when Jason Chimera scored his second of the game.
“It felt like we were chasing them, but at the same time we were getting some good scoring chances and good looks,” Little said. “You don’t feel lucky that you got one point, obviously you want two. But it’s better than no points. It’s bit like kissing your sister I guess. You don’t want to give up those two points, but it’s nice that you have one.”
The Jets blew a chance to go ahead in the second period when two Washington players got sent off for penalties. Despite having a two-man advantage for 1:30, the Jets couldn’t score. Worse for them, the penalty killing invigorated the Capitals and sent the packed crowd at the Verizon Center into a frenzy.
That was a “big turning point in the game,” said Boudreau. “It got our bench really up.”
And yet the Jets didn't fold. They withstood a furious Capitals rally that included a Washington goal being waved off because of goaltender interference.
The five on three “that could have really hurt us,” said Noel. “It really demoralizes you.” He added that he was impressed with the way the players responded.
As for Ovechkin, he has been the subject of much analysis for his slow start. Last week in Winnipeg he talked about his frustrations and sounded perplexed. There was no talk of that prior to the game Wednesday. He looked more confident and spoke about building on the momentum from the Caps' 4-3 win Monday over the Phoenix Coyotes and about helping get Semin back in stride. He looked more at ease on the ice Wednesday, levelling hits and coming close on a couple of scoring chances.
Boudreau said Ovechkin played much better than he has in a while. But he added the Russian star was frustrated at not scoring in front of the home crowd. Overall, Boudreau said his team showed far more passion, outhitting Winnipeg 35-27. “I think we had five hits in Winnipeg,” Boudreau said. “We wanted to get into that 30 hit range.”
The Jets did manage to address one area that has plagued them all season – penalties. They are among the NHL leaders in terms of power plays allowed, but on Wednesday they gave Washington just three, lower than their game average of five. And they killed off all three.
Prior to the game, Boudreau talked about the eerie feeling he has about Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
“His numbers are ridiculous against us,” Boudreau said Wednesday morning. “It's ever since he fainted on us, he's been outstanding against us. I wish I could change that.”
Boudreau was referring to a game a year ago in Washington when Pavelec, then with the Jets' predecessor, the Atlanta Thrashers, fainted just after the puck dropped and recovered later in an ambulance, not knowing what had happened. Ever since Pavelec has played his best against the Capitals, going 4-1 with two shutouts.
He played well again Wednesday night, making 33 saves on 37 shots. Pavelec said he doesn’t know why he plays well in Washington, other than he thrives on the challenge.
“It’s always fun to play here,” he said after the game.
The Jets play two more road games this week, against Carolina and Boston. And no doubt the team’s confidence will be tested again.