The Winnipeg Jets knew before Thursday night's game that they had a chance to do something special – move into a playoff spot for the first time this season.
The players talked about it after the morning skate and so did coach Claude Noel, telling reporters that "we've been battling for that position for some time." Even Jets' co-owner David Thomson was on hand at the MTS Centre to see if the team could make it.
All the Jets had to do was beat the Washington Capitals, a team the Jets thought they could handle. After all they'd beaten the Capitals once this season in Winnipeg and had lost to them once in overtime in Washington.
But they couldn't and lost 1-0 to the Capitals who got a goal from Alex Ovechkin with just 1:14 left in the third period. Now instead of moving into eighth place in the Eastern Conference, the Jets dropped to 11th and the Capitals jumped over them into a tie with Buffalo, New Jersey and Montreal for seventh.
The Jets never looked good Thursday and got worse as the game went on, losing races to the puck and generally getting badly outplayed through most of the final 20 minutes.
"I'm extremely mad right now," Noel said after the game. "It's a bad two points we gave that team. It's stupid. We deserve exactly what we got."
Referring to the chance to get into a playoff spot, Noel added: "We had a chance to get up and get something done. We didn't play well. We played poorly. We played the way Washington wanted us to play, that's the sad part. They lulled us into this game, we thought we could be cute."
Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who took over from Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28, credited his young goalie Michal Neuvirth, who has only played in 12 games this season. Neuvirth made 26 saves for his first shut out of the year and only the fifth in his two-year NHL career.
"We had some breakdowns defensively in our own end and he stood tall and made the big saves," said Hunter who is now 4-4 since taking over as coach. "In the third period I thought we were skating really well and playing more in their end but definitely Michal kept us in the game early and gave us some confidence and I thought we played well in the third. One play and it ends up in the net."
Neuvirth said he faced a flurry of early shots by the Jets and "after a couple of saves I settled down." He joked about playing against Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec, a fellow Czech. "I used to play with him as a little kid and each [of us]did pretty well [Thursday] He's a great guy and I got a little lucky at the end and he played great and it was a great battle."
As for Ovechkin, he came into the game still struggling with just nine goals this season. Before the game he talked about feeling more confident and showing signs of returning to his old form. He didn't get that far Thursday and he was a non-factor through most of the game, getting just three shots on net. But his last shot, a quick wrist shot from right in front of Pavelec, was enough to seal the victory.
"In the first period Neuvirth made some unbelievable saves and kept us in the game and we just played better and better," Ovechkin said after the game. "I think the last 20 minutes we played well and have more chances... It was an important goal for the team and I'm happy I scored it."
The Capitals arrived in Winnipeg supposedly struggling with the same issues that plagued them under Boudreau. Ovechkin couldn't score like he used to, forward Alexander Semin seemed in a funk and starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun had been rattled.
Hunter opted to put in Neuvirth Thursday, giving Vokoun a chance to reflect on his poor play. It was a risky call given that the Czech hadn't played much and was in goal when the Jets beat Washington 4-1 on Nov. 17 in Winnipeg.
But Neuvirth quickly put the Capitals' goaltending worries to rest, shutting down several early Jet attacks, including a hard shot by Evander Kane and two big saves on wide open attempts by Winnipeg forward Jason Jaffray. By the end of the first period he had stopped 14 shots and looked confident.
The Jets had more chances in the second when Washington took two straight penalties. But Winnipeg's power play failed to connect and the team looked disorganized much of the time.
"We had a lot of chances in the first half. We had the chances on the power play, but the [Washington]penalty kill did the job," Jet defenceman Ron Hainsey said. "When they counter, they can make plays."
By the third period Washington started taking control, snapping off quick passes, out-checking the Jets and winning most battles for the puck. The Capitals controlled most of the play in the Jets' end and the only thing preventing them from scoring was Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec who came up with several key saves.
Even several hearty cheers from the rowdy fans, who also booed Ovechkin every time he touched the puck, did little to motivate the Jets. Only Pavelec seemed to remain sharp, making a good save off a shot by Jason Chimera with less than four minutes to go in the third. And on another shot by Troy Brouwer.
But Washington kept coming, showing some of the old flair they once had. Ovechkin came up with the heroics for Washington. The Jets failed to clear the puck and Nicklas Backstrom recovered it, fired it to Marcus Johansson who made a nice pass to Ovechkin who shot it by Pavelec.
Winnipeg dropped to 14-13-4 with 32 points. The team continues its long run of home games Saturday against Anaheim Ducks and former Jet Teemu Selanne.
Noel said it would take him some time to get over Thursday game.
"It ruins my night tonight, not that I have a life, so it ruins that," he said. 'I'll get up in the morning, I'll be bitter and mad and everything else. I'll figure out how to manage the day and then we'll move forward. We'll move off it. We just got to get back on the horse and get going."