WINNIPEG – In a game they had to win, the Winnipeg Jets found a way.
The Jets outbattled a determined Washington club for a 3-2 win Friday night in front of a full-throated and playoff-ready crowd of 15,004 at the MTS Centre, ending the Capitals' four-game winning streak and moving Winnipeg within two points of eighth-place Washington in the race for the last playoff berth in the East -- a regulation loss would have dropped them six points out.
"I thought that was a heck of a game," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "I thought it was a playoff-style game. It would have been a sad game to lose, really. It was everything we could do to win the game."
The victory gave the Jets 76 points, moving them into ninth place, one point ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and two behind Washington. All three teams have 11 games remaining. The Jets are five behind Florida for the Southeast Division lead.
"This one stings a little bit more than a playoff loss," Washington's Troy Brouwer said, "because a playoff loss, you forget about it and move on. But this one, we really needed the points in the standings to try to get some separation between us and Winnipeg. But now it's going to make this race a little bit tighter."
Dustin Byfuglien broke a 2-2 tie 9:21 into the third period, scoring his 11th goal of the season during a scramble in front. With the clubs skating 4-on-4, Evander Kane took a pass at the point, motored to the net and fed a pass into Tomas Vokoun's crease that Byfuglien jammed into the net.
"Buff likes to get out there and make a difference, and he was," Noel said. "He was resting in the crease, recovering in the crease. Evander Kane made a heck of a play and fed Buff there, and what can you say? Buff wants that impact in games and does. It was good. It was really good."
Capitals coach Dale Hunter argued that Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov had held Washington defenseman John Carlson's stick, allowing Byfuglien to charge the net unimpeded.
"[Burmistrov] held it for, like, five seconds. It was a great play, because Johnny [Carlson] couldn't defend, and they get the winning goal because of it. But it was a great play by the kid to do that. It definitely was that play [that was the difference]. It's always one play in a game, and that was the play. It was a 4-on-4, and Johnny couldn't defend."
The Capitals continued an all-out attack into the final minute of play after Winnipeg's Ron Hainsey went off for high-sticking with 2:22 left. Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec denied the Caps' last premium opportunity when he smothered Dennis Wideman's right-circle blast with 16 seconds left.
"We battled so hard, the fans were crazy, and it was great to be part of it," Pavelec said. "It was a big game, but every game is big, and there's another big game [against Carolina on Sunday]. Everyone played well, but I think we deserved to win."
Tensions between the clubs spiked several times during the game, and a first-period hit by Winnipeg's Mark Stuart on Capitals forward Marcus Johansson left the Capitals in a sour mood afterward.
"We've got them again," Brooks Laich said of the Jets, who visit Washington next week. "We've got them again in a week. We definitely don't like them. They're right behind us, and we'll see them in a week."
Andrew Ladd and Nik Antropov scored the other Winnipeg goals. Laich and Mathieu Perreault connected for the Caps, erasing one-goal Winnipeg leads each time. Blake Wheeler's assist extended his point streak to six games, and he now has 21 points over his past 13 outings.
Vokoun, who had been knocked out of a game between the clubs in Winnipeg earlier in the season, put on a goaltending display through the opening two periods. Vokoun held the Jets, who maintained steady offensive-zone pressure, to two goals on 21 shots, including two premium opportunities from Wheeler late in the second period. He finished with 25 saves and helped the Caps hold the League's top-ranked home power play scoreless on five chances.
Pavelec, Vokoun's Czech counterpart, denied several excellent Washington scoring opportunities. Early in the contest with the Capitals buzzing deep inside the Winnipeg zone, Pavelec swallowed Alex Ovechkin's point-blank slot chance halfway through the first period. Pavelec finished with 20 saves.
Winnipeg broke a 1-1 tie late in the second period with a goal from its fourth line for the second time in as many games. Tim Stapleton and Antti Miettinen wrestled a puck loose inside the left corner. Stapleton worked a pass out to Antropov, who backhanded a shot high over Vokoun from the edge of the crease at 16:10.
But Washington again yanked away the home club's momentum by killing off 1:38 of 5-on-3 time for the Jets. Laich stepped out of the penalty box to end the Winnipeg man-advantage, and his partial breakaway resulted in Tobias Enstrom's holding minor with 10 seconds left in the second period.
The Capitals opened the third period on the power play, and Perreault tied the game 27 seconds after the opening faceoff when he stripped Hainsey along the right boards inside the Winnipeg zone, shuffled into the slot and snapped a shot past Pavelec.
The clubs staged a fairly tentative opening period, with the Jets outshooting the Capitals 7-5. Ladd picked up this third goal in two games when he gave the Jets an early 1-0 lead, backhanding a loose puck in the slot over Vokoun at 11:08. But just 22 seconds later, Laich picked up his 15th when he converted Marcus Johansson's feed.
The Capitals move on to Chicago, where they will continue their season-high five-game road trip against the Blackhawks. The Jets have one day off before meeting Carolina at home.
"We're still in the race," Wheeler said, "and we watched teams win the games they needed to win, and now we're winning the games we need to win."