WASHINGTON - Jaromir Jagr had been patiently waiting to make a difference last night, and there he was at the far post. Chris Simon made a nice play to get him the puck and it looked as if the Capitals were going to be right back in this game.
But Dallas goalie Ed Belfour had been on his game all night, and when Jagr snapped his wrist for what looked like the tying goal, Belfour was there waiting.
"He was kind of cheating on the play, and I really didn't have a good shot because he was there already," said Jagr. "No one else was open to shoot and he came to me right away and I hit him with the puck and then it rolled beside the net."
The Caps, who love to leave things until late, were that close to tying the game with 8:32 to play. But it didn't happen, and when Washington found itself killing a four-minute penalty less than a minute later, the game was all but over as Dallas pulled away for a 5-2 victory.
Washington, which trails the New York Rangers by three points for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, is down to 15 games to play and leaves on an eight-game road trip that will begin in San Jose tomorrow.
"Eddie Belfour made that one big save and that made the difference," said Capitals coach Ron Wilson. "We kept battling after that save on Jagr, but for us to kill four minutes of penalty with seven minutes to go is just too much for us.
"Dallas battled for every inch of space. They're the best team we've played for a while. Against a team like that, we all have to dump the puck in; otherwise we're butting our heads against a wall."
Belfour (25 saves) played like a rock in front of the Stars' goal. The veteran goalie had been benched for four of five games prior to this one, but if his game had been off elsewhere, it was certainly on at MCI Center.
Washington probably needed this game more than Dallas, but the Stars are also in a race for a playoff spot. Used to being a top seed, they find themselves trying to hold on to eighth place in the Western Conference.
The Caps, meanwhile, have gone 7-3-2 since Jan. 30 and made up four of seven points.
Now, they hit the road, two games below .500 at 27-29-10-01, hoping to make up more ground.
"We've known that we have to do it on the road and we're prepared to do that," said Wilson.
Last night's game, viewed by a sellout crowd of 18,6672, was hectic and frenetic. The Caps, as is their wont, fell behind early on first-period goals by Dallas' Darryl Sydor and Jere Lehtinen, before Dmitri Khristich, who had the game-winner Sunday against Edmonton, scored to make it 2-1 with 59.7 seconds left in the opening period.
But the Stars scored again on a shot by Sergei Zubov with 3:19 left in the second before Andrei Nikolishin closed the gap to 3-2.
"I wish we could take this game back," said Jagr. "It would help a lot. But the doors are still open."
Dallas 2 1 2 - 5
Washington 1 0 1 - 2
First period - 1, Dallas, Sydor 2 (Hatcher, Zubov), 7:03 (pp). 2, Dallas, Lehtinen 19 (Turgeon, Rucinsky), 17:08. 3, Washington, Khristich 7 (Konowalchuk, Kucera), 19:00. Penalties - Verbeek, Dal (high-sticking), 2:29; Forbes, Was (hooking), 6:01; Hatcher, Dal (hooking), 7:43.
Second period - 4, Dallas, Zubov 9 (Nieuwendyk), 16:41. Penalties - None.
Third period - 5, Washington, Nikolishin 10 (Klee, Simon), 9:03. 6, Dallas, Morrow 13 (Sydor, Zubov), 15:48 (pp). 7, Dallas, Muller 6, 19:27 (en). Penalties - Gilchrist, Dal (high-sticking), 2:43; MacLean, Dal (cross-checking), 10:03; Konowalchuk, Was, double minor (high-sticking), 12:23.
Shots on goal - Dallas 11-12-11-34. Washington 10-5-12-27. Power-play opportunities - Dallas 2 of 3; Washington 0 of 4. Goalies - Dallas, Belfour 18-22-7 (27 shots-25 saves). Washington, Kolzig 23-26-7 (33-29). A - 18,672 (18,672).