WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The message that flashed on the video screen above center ice before the opening faceoff did not mince words. “The loudest fans in the NHL are ready for the biggest game of the year,” it read.
Indeed, the capacity crowd at MTS Centre was rocking Friday, and both the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets competed as if it were a playoff contest. In the end, though, the Jets skated off with an important 3-2 victory and the Capitals left fuming about a missed penalty call on the game-winner and a controversial hit on Marcus Johansson.
Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period on a play Capitals Coach Dale Hunter said was made possible by Alexander Burmistrov holding John Carlson’s stick in the slot. With Carlson’s stick tied up as the teams skated four-on-four, Byfuglien managed to tip Evander Kane’s crossing pass through Tomas Vokoun, who was occasionally spectacular in making 25 saves.
“If you watch the replay, actually it was a great play by Number 8,” Hunter said of Burmistrov. “He held it for like five seconds. It was a great play so Johnny couldn’t defend and they got the winning goal because of it.”
With the win, the Jets (34-29-8) pulled to within two points of the eighth-place Capitals (36-29-6) in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Both teams have 11 games remaining and are set for a rematch next Friday in Washington.
“It was a 50-50 game and they got the final bounce on a four-on-four,” Mike Knuble said. “We played hard, competed. It’s what you want to see out of your team. We had a handful of chances to win the game. It was just one little play at the end. Johnny’s stick gets held.”
The third period began with the Capitals trailing 2-1. But Mathieu Perreault needed only 27 seconds to even things up. The Capitals’ diminutive but feisty center hounded Winnipeg’s Ron Hainsey, intercepting the defenseman twice before snapping a shot past Ondrej Pavelec (20 saves) on the power play.
After Byfuglien’s goal put the Jets ahead at 9:21, the Capitals had one more chance to force overtime when Hainsey was whistled for high-sticking with 2:22 to play. But Pavelec made stops on a pair of shots by Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals’ four-game winning streak came to an end.
“We really needed the points in the standings to create some separation,” Troy Brouwer said. “But now it’s going to make this race a little bit tighter. The crowd is a big part of their game, which is why their home record is so good, I think. It can be intimidating for opposing teams coming in.”
The noise level in the stands — and the intensity on the ice — reflected what was at stake. In fact, only 45 seconds in, the crowd of 15,004 fans began taunting Vokoun with chants of “Vo-koun.” In the third period, they went after Alex Ovechkin, chanting, “Crosby’s better.”
The game also featured plenty of physical play including one hit the Capitals expect the NHL to review.
At 8:31 of the first period, Winnipeg defenseman Mark Stuart crunched Johansson with a high hit behind the Jets’ goal, knocking off Johansson’s helmet. No penalty was called on the hit. Johansson played the rest of the period, but missed the first half of the second.
“Apparently Mark Stuart can hit guys in the head,” said Brooks Laich, who scored his fourth goal in six games in the first period.“He did it to Brouwer. He did it to Marcus. I’m not an official.”
Asked about Stuart’s hit on Johansson, Hunter said: “It was a high hit and the league will review it.”
Moments after the hit, Andrew Ladd flipped a backhander past Vokoun from the high slot after his original shot was knocked down by Perreault at 11:08. But before the public address announcer had finished calling the goal, Laich had tipped in a slap-pass from Johansson just 22 seconds later to knot the score at 1, which is how it remained at the end of 20 minutes.
Ovechkin finished with a team-high five shots on net after missing the majority of Thursday’s practice following a violent collision with Knuble. He was, however, involved in the only goal of the second period. At 16:10, Nik Antropov slipped the Capitals’ captain in the crease and tipped in a perfectly placed centering pass from Tim Stapleton to send the Jets into the second intermission with a 2-1 lead.
“It’s all right, we got them again in a week,” Laich said. “Hockey players have long memories. We’ll see them soon.”