WASHINGTON — Afforded all the respect of the famous Washington Generals — think the Harlem Globetrotters’ props — the Winnipeg Jets put up a fight Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
That fight was not near enough to take down the Washington Capitals, who came in waves and eventually subdued the Jets 5-3 to claim first place in the NHL’s Southeast Division and the third seed for the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoffs that start next week.
The defeat leaves the Jets stuck at 51 points with just one game to play, at home Thursday against Montreal. The teams still in their sights, the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers, are one point ahead with three and two games to play respectively, so Winnipeg needs a result and probably some influence from the Vatican to get one of the eight playoff berths.
"It shouldn’t be (difficult on Thursday)," said Jets winger Blake Wheeler, who tied the game 2-2 in the second period. "It’s the last one. One way or another we still have something to play for, even if it’s just pride.
"You should be able to go out there and bust your ass for one more game, even if you know you’re not going to make the playoffs. I think our group has a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished however many games. We’ve put a hell of an effort out and tonight we came up short.
"We rebound and do the same things Thursday, you never know what happens."
The bad omens were there early for the Jets. Matt Hendricks scored from the corner and Jason Chimera was left untouched to whack in his own rebound, while the Jets had a hit post by Bryan Little and a goal-line review of an Aaron Gagnon tip that didn’t go their way.
"The first one, it wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure," Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec said. "We scored a few and we had a chance but you know, it’s a really good team and I think they deserved to win."
A rally to 2-2, then a sharp flop back to two goals down wasn’t a very good taste for the visitors, either.
"It’s exciting to score a goal to tie the game," Wheeler said. "I felt like when that went in, we had some momentum and if we could have just played in their end a little bit, come out of the period 2-2, it would have looked good for us."
The Jets didn’t skulk away, and Nik Antropov, in his first game after missing eight on the injured list, rifled a high shot in to make it 4-3 and then Winnipeg failed on a late power play, their last real chance.
"It’s frustrating to lose a game like that," Antropov said. "It was basically our Game 7 in the playoffs."
After the buzzer
What the Jets left on the table annoyed Antropov.
"I don’t think we drove the net good in the second," he said. "But especially in the first. That could have been another couple of goals. We missed opportunities to score.
"And to give up that (third) goal, the next shift, that’s something you have to learn, especially if you’re going down the playoff road.
"You can’t give up goals like that."
Jets captain Andrew Ladd couldn’t say his team played its best game Tuesday but he said they won’t give up for their final game Thursday.
"Some of the mistakes we made in our own end in the first tonight, we won’t be happy with," he said. "I thought the effort was there. I think we can be proud of the way we worked.
"I think you have to (show up Thursday). As a professional, it’s your job to make sure you’re coming out. Mathematically we still have a shot so we don’t want to sell ourselves short by not showing up."