WASHINGTON, DC — Entering the period down a goal, the Winnipeg Jets outhit, out-hustled and flat outplayed the Washington Capitals in the last 20 minutes of regulation.
Forward Tim Stapleton knew it was just a matter of time until that effort paid off.
"We really believed. There wasn't a doubt in our minds, the way we were pressing," he said. "We all want to make the playoffs, and we're going to do everything we can to get in."
The fourth line of Stapleton, Ben Maxwell and Spencer Machacek provided unexpected heroism for Winnipeg, generating the tying goal in the third and the game-winner in overtime to leave the Capitals stunned in a 4-3 loss.
Washington improved to 82 points, tied with the Buffalo Sabres in points but ahead on victories to remain the No. 8 seed. The Jets meanwhile crept up to 78 points to keep pace.
"We're still alive. The season is on the line. I'm just happy we got the two points. That's all that really matters," said Stapleton.
The second period saw the Capitals take a 2-0 lead on an Alex Ovechkin goal. That led to a Jets timeout.
Ovechkin's second of the night made it 3-0 at 5:47 of the second, but Ben Maxwell scored his first of the season from Stapleton and Machacek at 7:01 to answer it.
"Our bench got excited and we felt we could come back," said winger Andrew Ladd.
What followed was a key moment in the game six seconds later, according to Noel: a Jim Slater fight with Brooks Laich that helped spark the Jets.
"The timeout was more about 'we have to get the next goal' … and we didn't. We didn't even stick to the plan. But we hung in there," said Stapleton. "It's such a psychological game, where if you're negative, then [everyone] gets negative."
Bryan Little cut the lead to 3-2 just 1:05 after the fight.
Then it was grind time.
The Jets dominated the third, outshooting the Capitals 17-2 and dominating zone possession. Part of that was thanks to Washington entering a defensive posture.
"We understood that it was basically their season in the third period and they were going to come really hard," said Laich. "Sometimes, you are forced to defend and I thought we did a good job."
Noel said after the game that the Capitals and Coach Dale Hunter were "hard line matching" in the third period, allowing the Jets to exert more control over matchups than one would typically expect from a road team down a goal.
Stapleton acknowledged the Capitals didn't have the same drive of the previous two periods, but that the Jets were also forcing the issue.
"Yeah, but I also saw us go into that desperation mode. I don't think I've seen that all year between us. We just kept pressing and pressing."
The pressing paid off at 16:15 of the third, when Machacek scored his first NHL goal on a feed from Maxwell to tie the game.
"That line was really good. When they played, they were a real factor," said Coach Claude Noel.
In overtime, it was Stapleton's turn to play the hero:
"I was trying to make a play there. I was to the outside the whole time. The confidence was there, so I was able to hang onto it for a while. I saw [Dustin Byfuglien] go back door. It came back to him, it came back to me. The puck was bouncing a little bit and I was in a position to shoot, so I had to shoot. And I was lucky it went in," he said.
Well, not completely lucky. Stapleton admitted he picked his spot against goalie Michal Neuvirth.
"I usually don't," he said. "I usually bury my head. But I saw the defenseman, used him as a screen. And I had time to pick my head up. I usually just put my head down and shoot."
He kept his head up, as did his team after going down 3-0. For the second time in 2012, they skated into Washington and rallied for an extra session victory.
"A fitting end, really," said Noel of his team's late-game effort.