All the pre-game chatter focused on the Washington Capitals' high-scoring Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin, the MVP candidate. Ovechkin, the NHL's leading scorer. Ovechkin, the perennial Winnipeg Jets' killer.
But in the end, it was the Capitals' foot soldiers, not their stars, who helped push the Jets to the brink of playoff elimination. Facing a must-win game against the high-flying Capitals Tuesday night, the Jets fell behind 2-0 early, battled to get the game back on even terms, but then ultimately lost a 5-3 decision to Washington in front of a packed house at the Verizon Centre.
With the victory, the Capitals clinched top spot in the NHL's Southeast Division for the fifth time in the past six years and will be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference once the NHL playoffs begin next week. The Jets, meanwhile, stayed in ninth place, with only a single game – home to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night – remaining on their schedule.
With 51 points, the Jets can finish with no more than 53 by winning their final game. It means the teams they're chasing – the eighth-place Ottawa Senators and the seventh-place New York Rangers – can clinch a playoff spot with a single win in any of their remaining games. Despite earning just a single point in the shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Islanders locked down the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference when Winnipeg lost.
So things are dire for the Jets, who were playing for the second time in two nights, and running mostly on adrenaline, knowing the stakes were so high. But the Capitals knew that, too.
It was the last time the two teams met as Southeast Division rivals and Washington can thank the Jets, in many ways, for saving their season. It was back in the third week of March when the Capitals, languishing in 14th place in the East, visited Winnipeg and swept the Jets in two one-sided games, outscoring them by a 10-1 margin.
"That was our season," Capitals' winger Troy Brouwer said. The back-to-back losses sent the Jets into a tailspin and pushed the Capitals onward and upward in the standing. Since then, Washington has been on a tear – 16-4-1 in its past 21 games, and on a 10-1 run.
The Jets, meanwhile, will be obliged to do some scoreboard watching on Thursday night, beginning with the Senators' game against the Capitals.
Offensively, the Capitals were spurred on by their nominal third line, with Mathieu Perrault and Jason Chimera leading the way with a goal and an assist through the first 40 minutes. Matt Hendricks, Niklas Backstrom and Ovechkin, to ice it into the empty net, scored the other goals for Washington. For Ovechkin, it was his league-leading 31st goal of the season.
Winnipeg received its goals from Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Nik Antropov. Wheeler's goal, at the 14:11 mark of the second period, tied the seesaw game at two goals each and gave the Jets life. Antropov, who was in the lineup for the injured Kyle Wellwood, made a smart read to set up the play, going down the boards and intercepting a clearing attempt by Caps' defenceman Steve Oleksy. Antropov's seeing-eye, cross-ice feed through the slot came right to Wheeler, who roofed a shot high and tied the game.
Sadly for the Jets, the Caps regained the lead only 37 seconds later when Ovechkin's centring pass glanced in off Backstrom's skate. The referees reviewed the play, but determined there was no direct kicking motion. With the Jets reeling, Perreault took advantage of an iffy line change by Winnipeg to chip the puck past goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, after the Capitals swarmed the net to restore Washington's two-goal lead.
Antropov made it close by scoring his sixth of the season at the 11:50 mark of the third, lasering a wrist shot over Holtby's shoulder, after the Capitals inexplicably gave him a ton of open ice, with some half-hearted back-checking attempts.
It was a difficult loss for Winnipeg to absorb, in part because they were a little unlucky to fall behind early. Hendricks' goal, 3:12 into play, which snapped a personal 25-game goal-scoring drought, came when his bad angled shot from behind the goalline banked in off Pavelec's shoulder.
The Jets had two excellent opportunities to tie it, but both times, Capitals defenceman John Erskine came to the rescue of his goaltender, Holtby. On the first, Erskine slid across the crease with Holtby out of position to block a shot heading into the wide open net. Later, he swept an Aaron Gagnon deflection off the goalline, after the puck had bounced high in the air and bounced off Holtby's back, skipping tantalizingly toward the open net. The play was reviewed, but it looked as though Erskine got the puck out of harm's way before it completely crossed the line.
Chimera then contributed his third of the season with 2:07 to go in the first period, banging in his own rebound, after Perreault slipped a centring pass to him from behind the net.
Wellwood will miss the rest of the season with a suspected broken right hand after blocking a shot from the Buffalo Sabres' Thomas Vanek in the Jets' 2-1 victory Monday night. For Antropov, it was his first action since April 2, when he was lost with a lower body injury.