WASHINGTON — All it took was a failed clear, a few passes and a one-timer for the Washington Capitals to earn a big win and hand the Dallas Stars a devastating loss.
John Carlson's winner with five minutes remaining gave Washington a 4-3 victory on Tuesday night to extend its lead atop the tight Metropolitan Division to four points. As important as it was for the Capitals, the stinging regulation defeat was a dagger to the Stars' fading playoff hopes.
Dallas finished its hellacious road trip 0-4-2 and sits outside the final playoff position in the Western Conference. It could need 14 of a possible 16 points before the end of the season to get in.
"It's a tough one, and we know that there's nothing you can do about it," Stars winger Alexander Radulov said. "We're still in the battle. We're still believing, and there's still lots of hockey left."
There isn't that much hockey left, and the Capitals are atop the Metropolitan, four points up on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets thanks to Carlson's goal that tied him with the Stars' John Klingberg at 61 points, the most among NHL defencemen. Carlson scored after Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen gave the puck away when he tried to clear the zone and came on a shot his team needed him to stop with the season almost on the line.
Lehtonen allowed four goals on 32 shots on a night in which top players Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Radulov scored and Dallas didn't get much else from its supporting cast.
"We have to have more people join the fight," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I know you win and lose as a team, but we have to get more people contributing either from a work standpoint or from a contribution standpoint because we can't have these same guys do it every night, night-in, night-out and not have more people fall in place here."
Things seem to be falling into place for Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who stopped 24 of 27 shots in his second consecutive victory after a month of struggles and a chance to reset his game. Unlike the Stars, Washington got offence from many places: T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen, Alex Ovechkin's NHL-leading 44th of the season and then Carlson when it mattered most.
Radek Faksa, who took one of the penalties that made it 4-on-4 before Carlson's goal, stared at the score sheet in the locker room with his gear still on. Not keeping pace in the Western Conference race hurt the Stars, and it was painfully obvious.
"We just needed to get to overtime," Seguin said. "We needed to at least get one point. We didn't do it."
The Capitals did one better. With the Blue Jackets on a nine-game winning streak and the Penguins always a threat, losing in regulation would've significantly damaged the Capitals' chances at a third consecutive division title.
"These are big points now," said Carlson, who's goal with 4:59 left was his 15th of the year. "Everyone can see how tight the race is and everybody kind of jockeying for position. You've got to collect them when you can and I think we had a good game tonight, so that's the most positive."
The Stars can only grasp at positives. They've lost 12 of their past 16 games and are crumbling with goalie Ben Bishop and others injured. As much as Hitchcock believes his team should take a "Who cares?" approach to injuries, they're taking a toll along with some shoddy play all over the ice.
"There's injuries; we have guys banged up," Seguin said. "So does every other team. I don't think that's an excuse. I don't think being tired is an excuse. Right now that's more of a mindset than anything. It's playoff hockey right now for us. It has been for a little while. We've got to go home and salvage some points."
NOTES: Capitals C Lars Eller was benched for more than eight minutes after his giveaway that led to Benn's goal. ... Capitals D Brooks Orpik returned after missing one game with a lower-body injury. C Evgeny Kuznetsov missed his second consecutive game with an upper-body injury. ... Stars D Marc Methot missed his fourth game in a row with a hand injury, while RW Brett Ritchie (lower body) and C Jason Spezza (back) were also out. ... Bishop is expected to miss at least two weeks with a left knee injury, and Lehtonen could be counted on to start the remaining eight games.
Stars: Return home to face the Boston Bruins on Friday.
Capitals: Visit the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday.
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