Dennis Wideman is helpless as Tim Stapleton’s slap shot slips past Capitals goaltender Michael Neuvirth as Washington surrenders a crucial Southeast Division matchup at home. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Pos)

There was a time early in the second period Friday night when the Washington Capitals held a commanding three-goal lead and appeared ready to squash any playoff hopes that remained for the Winnipeg Jets.

Instead of finishing that job, though, the Capitals collapsed under a strong push, giving up four unanswered goals en route to a 4-3 overtime loss at Verizon Center.

The defeat wasn’t only shocking because it marked the first time this season that Washington had coughed up a three-goal lead and its first loss in 23 games in which it had entered the third period with a lead. It was stunning for its timing: With only seven games remaining in the regular season, the Capitals, who are clinging to the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by virtue of tiebreakers, need points as much as Winnipeg.

“It cost us huge two points. We get one, but we needed two,” winger Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s stupid play by us. We just totally stopped playing after [the Jets] score [their] first goal.”

Washington (37-30-8) remained in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 82 points, tied with Buffalo, which defeated the conference-leading New York Rangers, 4-1, on Friday. Winnipeg (35-31-8), in 10th place with 78 points and a game in hand on both the Capitals and Sabres, stayed in the hunt thanks to the pair of points it picked up in Chinatown.

Early in the contest, Washington looked determined to remain in control of its own destiny. A breakaway tally by Jason Chimera with less than four minutes remaining in the first period made it 1-0.

Ovechkin continued his recent tear when he added two goals within the first 5 minutes 47 seconds of the second period to make it 3-0. Those goals give the star left wing eight goals in the past six games. But even the momentum by a chest-pounding Ovechkin dissolved quickly.

Less than two minutes after the Capitals gained the three-goal edge, Jets fourth-liner Ben Maxwell put his team on the board with his first goal of the season and second of his career on a backhander past the glove side of Michal Neuvirth, who made 38 saves. It was clear the Jets were looking for a way to propel themselves back in the contest, and on the faceoff immediately after the goal, unlikely fighter Brooks Laich dropped the gloves with the Jets’ Jim Slater.

Winnipeg Coach Claude Noel said he thought the fight was the turning point for his team.

“That’s really what got us going,” Noel said. “That really showed the rest of the players, the rest of the team, that we need to battle here, we need to keep going.”

Capitals Coach Dale Hunter said he didn’t take issue with the timing of Laich’s fight.

“It was 3-1 at the time, they were starting to turn” the momentum, Hunter said. “He tried to turn the tide back. It’s a hockey move and Brooksie did it and it’s good to change the tide.”

The scrap appeared to benefit the Jets far more than Washington, though. Sixty-five seconds after the players were sent to their respective penalty boxes, Bryan Little swept the rebound of a point shot into the cage with traffic in front to cut the Capitals’ advantage to 3-2.

Their lead down to one entering the third period, the Capitals knew the desperate Jets would bring a significant push. Despite that knowledge, Washington retreated from the Jets’ surges and found itself clinging to a lead instead of protecting it.

The Capitals failed to put a shot on goal against Ondrej Pavelec (20 saves) for the first 16:56 of the third period. They would be outshot 19-2 in the third period and overtime.

“We were just panicking, throwing pucks everywhere,” Chimera said. “We knew they were going to come at us. Their season was on the line. It’s a disappointing end to a good period-and-a-half of hockey that went to waste.”

Another fourth-liner for the Jets, Spencer Machacek, finally broke through with 3:45 remaining in regulation to even things at 3 and force overtime. It was his first goal of Machacek’s NHL career. The third member of the Winnipeg fourth line, Tim Stapleton, added the final dagger 2:37 into overtime.

While Washington has preached a defense-first mind-set under Hunter, going into a shell in their own zone in an attempt to withstand whatever an opponent throws at them wasn’t part of the plan, players said.

“You kind of put your tail between your legs when a team presses as hard as they did,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’re just trying to get the puck out. But when there’s time to make plays, you have to make the plays.”

Capitals notes: Joel Ward was seen on crutches and did not face the Jets. . . .

Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed 37 games with a concussion, skated for the 10th time in 11 days, this time working out on the ice earlier Friday with six other teammates.