Winnipeg Jets defenseman Mark Stuart, left, knocks down Washington Capitals left wing Jason Chimera during the first period of an NHL hockey game on Friday, March 23, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals rope-a-doped themselves out of a much-needed win. They hunkered down in their own end, allowing the desperate Winnipeg Jets to overcome a three-goal deficit.
Washington didn't take a shot on goal in the first 16 1/2 minutes of the third period, even though by then the lead was only one. It wasn't until Spencer Machacek scored his first NHL goal to tie it with 3:45 remaining in regulation Friday night that the Capitals bothered to mount an attack, and by then the Jets had all the momentum and were on their way to a 4-3 victory.
"It's stupid play by us," said Washington's Alex Ovechkin, who scored twice during the portion of the game when the Capitals were actually playing offence. "And we just totally stop playing after when they score first goal. And we played so different style of hockey in the third period, so they just put puck deep and get pressure and they score another one."
The result: The Capitals have been caught by the surging Buffalo Sabres, who beat the New York Rangers 4-1. Washington and Buffalo each have 82 points with seven games remaining, with the Capitals technically in front because they own the tiebreaker.
And the Jets are still in it. This was essentially a must-win after giving up 12 goals combined over two losses. They are four back of Buffalo and Washington, who play each other next week.
"I saw us go into desperation mode," said Tim Stapleton, who scored 2:37 into the extra period. "I don't think I've really seen that all year between us. We were just pressing and pressing and we stuck to the game plan, just throwing shots on net."
Ben Maxwell and Bryan Little started the comeback in the second period, scoring about a minute apart after the Capitals had taken a 3-0 lead. It's was Maxwell second career NHL goal, and he also had the assist on Machacek's first one, making it a grand day for the fourth-liners.
"We knew the extent of coming in right now, how it's a big playoff push," Machacek said. "We were excited just to help out any way we can. It doesn't matter if we score the goals. We just want to get the team wins, and tonight's a start."
Ovechkin, meanwhile, has rediscovered his old scoring touch. He had a pair early in the second period and has eight goals in six games, giving him 35 goals for the season. The fans responded with chants of "O-vi! O-vi!"
By the end of the game, they were booing. Winnipeg coach Claude Noel called timeout after the Capitals' third goal and steadied his players. Soon, Maxwell was unmarked in front of the crease to put in a simple backhand, and Little followed by converting the rebound after Tobias Enstrom hit the post.
The Capitals had been 22-0-0 when leading after two, but this time they took protecting the lead to the extreme. The final shot tally for the third period was 17-2.
"We took the foot off the gas," Washington defenceman Karl Alzner said, "and they pushed it down. They just had a lot more chances than we did, and we weren't getting the puck out. You usually see that happen in the last 10 minutes of the game, but it happened in the last 40 minutes, pretty much, which is very unacceptable. ... We just fell apart pretty much. It was an embarrassing, embarrassing loss."
Notes: Jason Chimera also scored for the Capitals, and Michal Neuvirth made 38 saves. ... Ondrej Pavelec made 20 saves for Winnipeg. ... The Capitals recalled F Cody Eakin from Hershey of the AHL. ... Washington's Brooks Laich and Winnipeg's Jim Slater dropped the gloves for a fight in the second period, immediately after Winnipeg's first goal.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP