- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2012

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The video board at MTS Centre’s message was clear before Friday night’s showdown: “The loudest fans in the NHL are ready for the biggest game of the year.” Biggest game of the year for both the Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets.

Dale Hunter had a similar message earlier in the day, calling this another playoff game. This one lived up to every bit of the hype.

Washington and Winnipeg played as if the season was on the line, even with three weeks left. The pace was quick, the hits were plentiful and the mistakes were made with the nerves that come with this kind of pressure.

The end result was a gut-wrenching 3-2 Capitals loss to the Jets that allows Winnipeg to remain in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“This one stings a little bit more than a playoff loss because a playoff loss you kind of forget about it and move on,” the Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer said. “But this one we really needed the points in the standings. We tried to get some separation between us and Winnipeg, but now it’s going to make this race a little bit tighter.”

With 11 games left, the Capitals have just a two-point lead on the Jets and a three-point lead on the Buffalo Sabres.

But Brooks Laich was plenty fired up after a loss that featured some post-whistle scrums, what Washington felt was a missed call on the winning goal and a controversial hit.

“That’s all right. We’ve got them again,” the Capitals center said. “We’ve got them again in a week and hockey players have long memories. We’ll see them soon.”

It’s hard to win in Winnipeg, as the Jets have proven to be one of the best home teams (23-10-4) thanks to a blisteringly loud crowd. Fans in this city were so starved for NHL hockey that they bought up all the season tickets within minutes of them going on sale.

They haven’t let the passion wane one bit. Cheers were loudest when Laich put the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty in the second period, getting on Alex Ovechkin throughout the game and when the Capitals iced the puck in the third period.

“When they get going at the beginning of the game, it’s tough not to get up for it,” Brouwer said. “It can be intimidating for opposing teams coming in when it’s a small rink, but it’s such a loud rink. The fans here, they love their hockey and they show it every night.”

It was hard for the fans to ask for much more, either, as this was probably the most exciting game of the year. Maybe not the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, but the intensity felt like it.

A huge five-on-three penalty kill by the Capitals shifted the momentum late in the second period, but some post-whistle extracurriculars changed the landscape in the third.

With the score tied and the teams skating four-on-four, Kane continued his Capitals-killing ways by skating around a helpless Jason Chimera. Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien was there to tip the puck past goalie Tomas Vokoun and just about blow the roof off MTS Centre.

Washington players and Hunter said Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov held John Carlson’s stick in front of the net, allowing for Kane’s pass to Byfuglien. Hunter said that was the difference in the game when “Johnny couldn’t defend.”

“One little play at the end when Johnny’s stick gets held in a four-on-four situation,” right wing Mike Knuble said. “The guy literally grabs a hold of his stick and creates a passing lane and they just bang it in.”

That was the difference in what could have been the Capitals burying the Jets in the playoff race, but instead setting themselves up for a battle down the stretch.

“We definitely don’t like them,” Laich said. “They’re right behind us. We’ll see them in a week.”



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