WASHINGTON — In many ways, the Winnipeg Jets played close to a perfect game in enemy territory Sunday night against an elite opponent. But they were unable to make it count, falling 3-1 to a Washington Capitals team that made the most of its extremely limited chances.
No, they don't give out consolation prizes in NHL hockey games. So the Jets will have to be satisfied with perhaps a moral victory.
"We played a heck of a road game here. You don’t like losing when you play well. Their guy made some good saves, they got some good breaks around the net, but our compete was good," said coach Paul Maurice outside his team's locker room at Capital One Arena.
Winnipeg falls to 40-24-4, including 2-2-0 on a tough four-game, eight-day eastern road swing. They remain on top of the Central Division, one point up on Nashville with two games in hand. Washington improves to 41-21-7 with its seventh straight win, as the defending Stanley Cup champions appear to be in fine form heading down the stretch.
Give the Jets credit — they held the offensively-potent Capitals to just 18 shots on the night, including nine through two periods. That's even more impressive when you consider top defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are both out of the lineup with injuries.
Winnipeg fired 34 pucks on Pheonix Copley, but could only beat Washington's backup goalie once.
"No one likes losing, so it stings a bit. It was a big two points for us and we wanted to beat these guys in their building. Overall, we played a good game. We limited a lot of their chances against and kept the shots down and had a lot of chances. Nothing to be hanging our heads about, but it’s a tough result," said centre Bryan Little.
It's not difficult to see where this one turned. Winnipeg went 0-for-5 on the power play, including a prolonged five-on-three advantage, and gave up the game-winning goal just seconds after a Washington infraction expired.
Speedy forward Carl Hagelin stepped out of the sin bin and took a flip pass from teammate Nic Dowd, springing him on a breakaway. He beat Connor Hellebuyck through the five-hole with just over five minutes left in the second period.
It was a case of adding insult to near-injury for Hagelin, who had shoved Mark Scheifele from behind in a dangerous play, sending the Jets centre crashing into the boards. He was whistled for cross-checking, while Scheifele somehow avoided potential disaster even though his leg looked to twist awkwardly.
Jets centre Kevin Hayes made an ill-advised pass attempt just as the power play expired, which was intercepted by Dowd who sent Hagelin off to the races.
"That was a pretty incredible pass by that guy, sucked back about three feet, to a breakaway. It was one of those nights," said captain Blake Wheeler, who had his four game goal-scoring streak and eight game point streak snapped.
The Jets power play has been a weapon on many nights this year, but it looked listless against a solid Washington penalty kill.
"They were pressuring us pretty hard so we couldn’t really settle down. I think we just need to shoot more. We’re going to pass it into the net, we gotta shoot more and have the shooter’s mentality on the power play," said Patrik Laine.
Washington got off to a strong start as Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring 4:35 into the game, finishing off some great puck movement and a big screen from teammate T.J. Oshie. Jets defenceman Tyler Myers had also been shaken up on the play and was slow to recover, giving the Capitals the numbers advantage.
Winnipeg didn't take long to respond, as Mathieu Perreault one-timed a Jack Roslovic pass less than two minutes later. Perreault's 12th goal of the season was his first in 15 games.
The best opportunity for Winnipeg to take the lead came later in the first period as the Jets got a 94 second two-man advantage. Laine had the two good looks, with one shot blocked by Matt Niskanen's hand and another ripped just wide.
After Hagelin's go-ahead goal in the middle frame, Winnipeg had several more chances against Copley, who got the start over No. 1 netminder Braden Holtby.
"Spent most of the game down there, on the power play a lot. We just couldn’t finish," said Wheeler. "(Copley) was kicking the puck out all night. The rebounds were there. We just couldn’t get to them."
The Jets looked to have tied the game with just over 10 minutes left in the third as Bryan Little stuffed home a loose puck, but it was waved-off on the play due to goaltender interference. Winnipeg challenged the call, but it was upheld on video review. Replays showed Little pushing Copley back into his net with his stick, although it wasn't clear if the puck had already crossed the line courtesy of Adam Lowry.
"I saw a loose puck kind of between his legs and I didn’t hear a whistle, so I was going for it. I was trying to whack it in. I don’t know what the explanation was, that we pushed him and you can’t do that, I guess," said Little.
"I think the call on the ice stands because it was the call on the ice. I think Lowry’s going for the puck. I think [Copley] put it in himself. I’m not complaining. I’m making the call, that call [to challenge] all day long. They’ve got to make the decision and then we move on," said Maurice.
Lars Eller sealed it with an empty-net goal with 21 seconds left in the game after the Jets had just failed to convert on a fifth and final power play of the night, this one a six-on-four with Hellebuyck pulled for the extra attacker.
Winnipeg began the road trip with a 5-2 win in Columbus, then fell 5-2 to the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning two nights later. They rebounded with an 8-1 victory Friday in Carolina before coming to the nation's capital.
"That’s why this one hurts a little more. It would have been nice going home 3-1, but overall we were playing some really good teams and we had some really good games where our level was high, including (Sunday). We go home with our heads high and get ready for the next one," said Little.
The Jets flew home after the game and will enjoy a day off Monday before kicking off a three-game homestand at Bell MTS Place on Tuesday night against the Pacific-division leading San Jose Sharks.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Sunday, March 10, 2019 at 9:54 PM CDT: Write-thru