Well, that was quite a way for the Winnipeg Jets to wrap up the month of February.
Following an impressive 4-1 road trip, the Jets got off to a great start, came back to earth a bit in the second period but managed to pull out a pair of goals in the third to earn a 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night before a crowd of 15,004 at MTS Centre.
Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec had a huge effort, making 22 saves as he’s became the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers all-time leader in games played by a goal (205), surpassing Kari Lehtonen while going head-to-head with another Thrashers’ netminder in Johan (Moose) Hedberg.
Pavelec wasn’t busy in the early going, but had to be sharp, making big saves off Patrik Elias and Bobby Butler. Pavelec, by his own admission, also had a bit of luck on his side as both Ilya Kovalchuk (in the first period) and Adam Henrique grazed shots off the post.
Captain Andrew Ladd was also right in the thick of the action, producing a goal eight seconds into the contest that allowed the Jets to score first for the seventh consecutive game, which is an impressive feat in itself.
Ladd’s goal came off the opening faceoff and after Devils D-man Marek Zidlicky got caught out of position. Ladd walked in alone and beat Hedberg with a strong move to the backhand.
“Lucky off the draw. Litts tipped it and I was surprised to find myself all alone, but you take those opportunities, especially at the start of the game,” said Ladd, who is now two goals off the league leader (Steven Stamkos).
Devils C Andrei Loktionov made a nice little move against Ron Hainsey to put himself in a better shooting position and beat Pavelec with a quick shot at 3:05 of the second period, evening the score and setting the stage for a dramatic finish.
The Jets also failed to connect on any of their three power plays, including a 5-on-3 during the second period that lasted for 56 seconds but failed to produce a single shot on goal.
Jets head coach Claude Noel and Ladd expressed concern about the ailing power play, but the penalty kill went 3-for-3 so the Jets still finished even in the special teams battle.
During a tight-checking third, Dustin Byfuglien made an outstanding rush that led to Ladd’s second of the game and team-leading 12th of the season.
Byfuglien showed a great burst up the ice, walked around Andy Greene and then pushed the puck off the side of the net and into the crease, where Ladd was quick to pounce on the rebound.
Ladd then set up Blake Wheeler for an empty-netter with 35.8 seconds left, giving the Jets five wins in six games and helping them improve to 10-9-1.
“He’s really showing on the stats sheet. But if you look at his game he’s doing a lot of things that aren’t on the stats sheet, little plays in the dirty areas. He’s what’s driving this team right now,” said Jets D-man Zach Bogosian, when asked about Ladd’s play.
It was the second time in as many meetings (this week) that the Jets have beaten the Devils, who made it to the Stanley Cup final last spring before losing to the Los Angeles Kings.
That allowed the Jets to remain in a tie for top spot in the Southeast Division standings with the Carolina Hurricanes (who have played one fewer game), but they jumped into eighth place, leaving them above the line.
Getting there is an accomplishment, but staying there is going to be a challenge.
“It’s tough coming back from road trips. Usually the first game’s the toughest one to get back into it. But we had a great start…. and found a way to win,” said Ladd.
Noel also thought there was a bit more energy in the crowd on Thursday.
“We were trying hard to get them involved, and that was a little bit of a struggle for us. The energy was good. People were doing the wave, I caught that. I don’t usually notice those things. It was good for us to be able to reward the fans with a win, at least. So the energy for us is terrific. They certainly are the seventh player on the ice for us,” said Noel.
The Washington Capitals visit the MTS Centre on Saturday afternoon for the second meeting of the season between the two clubs.
A few other things to chew on after Thursday’s game:
* Noel used 11 forwards mostly and was basically down to three lines in the third period. Chris Thorburn took only three shifts for 1:54. Eric Tangradi took eight for 4:25 and Anthony Peluso had eight shifts for 6:27. Jim Slater had 17 shifts for 9:36.
* Evander Kane saw his four-game goal-scoring streak and eight game point streak come to an end, but it wasn’t for a lack of chances. He had four shots on goal and had four hits in the game as well.
* The pairing of Bogosian and Ron Hainsey (both with more than 26 minutes) saw a lot of Kovalchuk’s line and kept the sniper off the board. Bogosian and Hainsey each picked up an assist in the contest as well.
* Byfuglien played 19:59 in the contest, marking just the second time this season he was under 20 minutes (pretty darn close though) and the highlight-reel play he made to set up Ladd was another demonstration of how powerful he is on his skates and with the puck.
* Ladd has 12 goals and 20 points in 20 games, Kane has nine goals and 18 points, while Wheeler has seven goals and 17 points.
* Winnipegger Travis Zajac had a quiet game, finishing with no points and a minus-2 rating while taking 28 shifts for 19 minutes of ice time in his first NHL game in his hometown.