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Capitals top Jets to capture Southeast crown

The SportsXchange

WASHINGTON -- In one dressing room, the music was loud and the high-fives were in abundance.

In the other, the sweaty silence was deafening.

The Washington Capitals, who lost nine of their first 11 games, completed a remarkable run to their fifth Southeast Division title in six years with a harrowing 5-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night in front of a sellout crowd at the Verizon Center.

"We believed in ourselves," said center Nicklas Backstrom, one of five different Capitals to score. "We talked a lot in the locker room, worked hard every day, started winning games, and we just kept rolling."

The defeat left the Jets three points behind the Capitals and needing plenty of help to keep alive their playoff hopes, despite going 6-1-1 in their past eight games.

Winnipeg (24-20-3, 51 points) remains one point behind the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, the teams that are tied for the last two playoff positions, but the Jets have just one game remaining, the Rangers have two and the Senators have three.

"It's frustrating to lose a game like that," said Nik Antropov, who drew the Jets within 4-3 with 8:10 remaining in the game. "This was basically our Game 7 of the playoffs, and it's frustrating to lose that way."

Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Alex Ovechkin joined Backstrom on the score sheet for the Capitals, who had to rely on their penalty killers and goaltender Braden Holtby down the stretch to preserve the victory.

Since starting the season 2-8-1, the Capitals have gone 24-10-1, including 10-1-0 down the stretch.

Ovechkin has been almost unstoppable during the Caps' recent run, scoring 22 goals in his past 21 games, including his league-leading 31st into an empty net Tuesday. Ovechkin has climbed within three points of Sidney Crosby for the league lead.

"He's played great the last couple months," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "He's pulled us along, and all 20 guys have gotten better because of it."

Ovechkin credited Oates for his offensive revival.

"He never gives up," Ovechkin said. "If we lose a game, he always finds the positives and he never screams at us. It's good when you have that kind of person behind you. We want to win for him and play for him."

The Capitals built a 4-2 lead on second-period goals by Backstrom and Perreault, but the Jets mounted a comeback, pulling within one goal with 8:10 remaining in regulation when Antropov ripped a wrist shot over Holtby.

The Caps had to kill off a penalty to Perreault with 5:16 remaining, then finished off the Jets when Ovechkin found an empty net with 28.3 seconds to play.

The Capitals tried to run away with the game early on goals from two unlikely sources. Hendricks, a fourth-line center, opened the scoring 3:12 into the game on Washington's third shot. He fired from behind the goal line off the back of goalie Ondrej Pavelec's right shoulder and behind him for his fifth goal of the season.

"We played too cute," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "There was no way we were going to be able to match their skill level and to play the way they played."

The Jets appeared to tie the score with about four minutes remaining in the first period when an Aaron Gagnon deflection flipped in the air and rolled off the back of Holtby. With the puck bouncing precariously close to the goal line, Washington defenseman John Erskine swatted it out of danger, and replays were too inconclusive to overturn the non-goal ruling on the ice.

Earlier in the period, Erskine saved Holtby by sliding in his crease to stop a shot by Bryan Little.

The Capitals made it 2-0 with 2:07 remaining in the first period when Chimera netted his third goal of the season, taking a centering pass from Perreault and lifting his own rebound over Pavelec.

The Jets have made a habit of coming back in recent games, and they wasted little time cutting into the two-goal deficit. Just 16 seconds into the second period, with Capitals winger Aaron Volpatti in the box for slashing, Evander Kane wristed a shot past Holtby for his 17th goal of the season.

When Blake Wheeler was left alone in the left circle, he hammered his 18th goal of the season past Holtby at 14:11 of the second period, and the Jets' playoff hopes suddenly brightened.

That feeling didn't last long.

On a two-on-two rush less than a minute later, Ovechkin threaded a pass for Backstrom, who redirected the puck past Pavelec for his eighth goal of the season.

The Capitals made it 4-2 less than three minutes later when Perreault dug out a Jack Hillen rebound and flipped it over Pavelec.

NOTES: Ovechkin is the ninth player in NHL history to score 30 or more goals in his first eight seasons. The others -- Glenn Anderson, Mike Bossy, Mike Gartner, Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuk, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille and Bryan Trottier -- are all in the Hockey Hall of Fame. ... Pavelec started on consecutive nights for the seventh time this season. He was 2-4-0 with a 3.52 GAA and .880 save percentage in the second end of his previous back-to-back games. ... Tuesday night's game marked the final meeting between the teams as Southeast Division rivals. The Capitals will return to a division similar to the old Patrick Division, and the Jets will head to the Western Conference. Washington leads the series against the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers with a 42-25-5-7 record. ... The Jets close out the regular season Thursday night at home against the Montreal Canadiens. The Capitals finish with homes games against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
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