Jets come back from dead

Jets forward Tim Stapleton (left) celebrates his game-winning goal against the Capitals with...

Jets forward Tim Stapleton (left) celebrates his game-winning goal against the Capitals with teammate Blake Wheeler at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 23, 2012. (GARY CAMERON/Reuters)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:49 AM ET

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Never mind the old adage about the best players having to come up big in the biggest games.

The Winnipeg Jets, looking down and out early in the second period, trailing Washington 3-0 in a make-or-break game, Friday night, saw their season salvaged for at least another day by their fourth line.

Farm-team callups Ben Maxwell and Spencer Machacek, along with jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, Tim Stapleton, combined for three goals, including the overtime winner, as the Jets shocked the Capitals, 4-3.

Stapleton fired home the winner at 2:37 of OT, pulling the Jets to within four points of the final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, now shared by the Caps and Buffalo.

“We’re going to do everything we can to just try to get in,” Stapleton said. “We’re still alive.”

It sure didn’t look that way 5:47 into the second, as Alex Ovechkin’s two quick goals hit the Jets like a semi-automatic, and the Capitals looked to be off to the races.

“They looked like they smelled blood,” Jets head coach Claude Noel said. “They had a couple of back-to-back shifts where really the momentum had shifted. We had to get it changed around in some fashion.”

An earlier timeout by Noel, sandwiched between the Ovechkin goals, hadn’t done it.

“We were down 3-0, but it didn’t feel that way,” Blake Wheeler said. “The score wasn’t quite indicative of the way the game was going. It felt like we were right in it.”

It sure didn’t look like it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the obituary.

Enter Ben Maxwell, playing just his second game since his latest recall from the AHL, a recent minor-leaguer making a major impact.

Taking a nifty pass from Stapleton, Maxwell scored the goal that began a huge momentum shift.

“Maxie’s goal was huge,” Andrew Ladd said. “It gave our bench a little excitement.”

Six seconds after the faceoff, another spark: Jim Slater’s fight with the Caps’ Brooks Laich.

“That’s really what got us going,” Noel said. “That showed the rest of the team that we need to battle here. That was a real statement. If you look from that point on, it was really clear our team got energized from that.”

“After that... we were flying,” is how Maxwell put it.

By the time the third rolled around, it looked like the ice was tilted in Winnipeg’s favour, as the Jets outshot the Caps, 17-2.

But it took until there was just 3:45 to go before they’d get one past goalie Michal Neuvirth.

And the play was as unlikely as they come, Maxwell doing his best Gretzky impersonation to find Machacek for his first career NHL goal to force overtime.

‘Got lucky’

“I kind of threw it blind through a couple of sticks,” Maxwell said. “I got lucky.”

Machacek didn’t care. He’d scored the biggest goal he could remember.

“That’s gotta be No. 1,” he said. “I had a big goal in the Memorial Cup final back in junior, but this is going to have to trump that, for sure. I’ve been waiting a couple years for that. It feels good.”

A fourth-year pro who’d played just a dozen NHL games going into the season, Machacek now has points in all three games since he was called up from the farm.

“That line was really good,” Noel said.

“They didn’t play a whole ton, but every time they played they were a real factor. They spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, so it was hard to keep them on the bench.”

He certainly wasn’t going to in overtime.

And when Stapleton rifled home the winner, the evening was complete.

“A fitting end, really,” the coach said. “They really deserved it. Our players were really cheering them on.”

There’s little time to celebrate, though.

Because right after the game it was off to Nashville, where the ornery Predators await, Saturday.

Just another critical game during a critical stretch for a team that can play confoundingly brutal at times, effectively wonderful at others.

“It could have been pretty easy to shut it down after 3-0,” Ladd pointed out. “But we have a lot of character in this room, and we showed that.”

That character is going to come in handy.

Because the pressure won’t be easing anytime soon.


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