WINNIPEG — Seated together on the Washington Capitals’ bench during a late television timeout Saturday night, while MTS Centre bellowed for a dancing man dressed like Waldo, forwards Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson hunted for answers. Their top line had already been gashed twice, a rare breaking of the trio featuring two of the NHL’s top four scorers. As a team, they buzzed four posts, doubled up the Winnipeg Jets in scoring chances and out-attempted their hosts by 18 shots, all to no avail. Now, facing a two-goal deficit deep into the third period, time was running out.
So while center Nicklas Backstrom, the third member of their group, slid onto the far end of the bench, Ovechkin and Johansson pointed around the ice, animated in their discussion. Still, aside from a frantic late push, little changed as the 3-0 defeat moved toward finality. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec made 28 saves for his second shutout of the season. An empty-net, shorthanded strike from winger Adam Lowry crushed the rally with 1 minute 22 seconds left. And the Capitals, having squandered their chance to match their longest winning streak of the season — four games — returned home searching for positives from their first loss to Winnipeg in eight meetings.
“We were upset that we lost, but we played a pretty good game,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If we bury on one of those chances . . . that changes the momentum for us. It’s one of those ones where you look back on it, you saw it right there. You had it.
“It wasn’t a bad loss for us, but it was a loss.”
Coach Barry Trotz had promised a far more competitive matchup than their Feb. 19 meeting at Verizon Center, when the Jets handed six power plays to their hosts in a 5-1 Capitals win. At home, the Jets’ relentless forecheck kept Alzner and Matt Niskanen stuck inside their zone on their first shift, the mark of what Trotz called “a very desperate team.”
The Capitals regrouped as forward Troy Brouwer pinged the crossbar at the five-minute mark, and a strong shift from their fourth line produced six shot attempts on a single offensive-zone occupation. But the Jets returned serve when defenseman Jacob Trouba intercepted the puck along the boards, waltzed into the slot and struck a wrist shot off the near post, and soon they struck first on the scoreboard, too.
As forward Drew Stafford carried the puck past the blue line, deked around defenseman Mike Green and twirled around to face the trailing action, defenseman Mark Stuart nestled into a soft spot in Washington’s coverage on the weak side. When forward Mark Scheifele flicked Stafford’s centering pass behind him, Stuart leaned forward and one-timed it past goaltender Braden Holtby.
“The first one everyone was pretty well in pretty good shape, but that’s hockey,” Trotz said. “You throw a puck and it hits the skate and you look down for a bit and it squeezes through your legs and goes to someone backdoor and that’s in the net.”
When the Capitals returned to the ice, their sloppiness — and frustration — only mounted. They committed five icings in the opening 24 minutes. Kuznetsov, with goals in each of the past two games, tried retreating into the neutral zone to avoid an offside but wound up losing the puck and took a holding minor.
Roughly midway through the second period, defenseman John Carlson tried clearing the puck and instead whiffed, letting it slip free. While the Jets took the turnover and cycled along the boards, Scheifele cut between Backstrom and Ovechkin, took winger Blake Wheeler’s feed and rocketed a wrist shot off the underside of the crossbar with such force that it zoomed straight down, over the goal line.
“They had lots of commitment all over the ice,” Trotz said. “When they had to block a shot, they did. When they had to box out and defend, they did. Sometimes it’s not always pretty. They got it done.”
Matters failed to improve during the final period. Brouwer neutered a power play when he elbowed forward Jim Slater inside Washington’s offensive zone. Twenty-two seconds after Brouwer released, forward Michael Latta spun around and cracked defenseman Tyler Myers with a high-stick to the throat, in roughly the same spot.
From there, the night belonged to Pavelec. Another strong fourth-line shift ended when he swallowed a goalmouth redirect from forward Brooks Laich. He survived defenseman Brooks Orpik nailing the crossbar, the fourth and final time Washington his iron. He gloved a one-timer from Green. And by the time Lowry flung the puck the length of the ice, flipping Slater’s tripping into the empty-netter, the Capitals were headed home, fresh out of answers.
“Goalie gets hot, plays well,” forward Tom Wilson said. “We’re obviously at the raw end of that.”