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Winnipeg’s win sets up heated race with Capitals for final playoff spot

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Winnipeg Jets’ Andrew Ladd (16), Dustin Byfuglien (33) and Blake Wheeler (26) celebrate Byfuglien’s goal against the Dallas Stars during the second period in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Woods)

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — It was a Friday night in March in Winnipeg, but it could have been doomsday for the Winnipeg Jets. Players knew it, showing a kind of focus in their morning skate work and in their words before facing the Washington Capitals.

By the end of the game, a 3-2 Jets victory, one thing was clear: This was a bigger win for Winnipeg than it was a debilitating loss for the Caps.

“We’re still in the race, and we watch teams win the games they needed to win and now we’re winning the games we need to win,” Jets forward Blake Wheeler said.

It keeps things interesting in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but Washington still holds an advantage, given the two-point lead and more favorable schedule down the stretch.

The Capitals weren’t happy after the loss, but they weren’t terribly mad at themselves, either.

“It’s not a good feeling,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “[But] there’s a lot of time left.”

With 11 games left, the Capitals have five at home, including games against the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild. According to the website Sports Club Stats, they have a 66.3 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Jets, even after Friday night, have a 29 percent chance, per Sports Club Stats. But beating Washington was essential to keeping its playoff hopes alive.

“It was a playoff-style game,” Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said. “It would have been a sad game to lose.”

Of course, the Capitals weren’t doing jumping jacks after losing to a Southeast Division rival, especially after how chippy the game was. There was plenty of pushing and shoving after whistles, and players complained of missed calls like Alexander Burmistrov holding John Carlson’s stick on the game-winner and when Mark Stuart landed a forearm hit to Marcus Johansson’s head.

Is a healthy rivalry blooming between the Capitals and Jets?

“We definitely don’t like them,” forward Brooks Laich said.

Familiarity in the form of six games a season will do that. But Friday night at MTS Centre was just matchup No. 5. The final meeting of the regular season comes next Friday at Verizon Center.

It sure seems like the Capitalsare already looking forward to the return engagement.

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

About the Author

Stephen Whyno

Stephen Whyno is the Capitals and NHL reporter for The Washington Times. You can follow him on Twitter (@SWhyno) or send him e-mail at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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