On an evening that saw two teams facing different forms of desperation, the Winnipeg Jets reverted to somewhat recent form and found a way to earn a 3-2 victory over the reeling Tampa Bay Lightning.
When the world found out early Sunday morning that the Lightning had fired head coach after two-plus seasons at the helm, you knew there would be an emotional element to this game.
And after being among the reporters speaking to Lightning star Steven Stamkos on Sunday after the news came down, you got the feeling he was taking this a bit personally.
Although this is the third coaching change he’s been through in five seasons on the job, Boucher helped Stamkos push his game to another level (scoring 60 goals last season and developing more of an all-around game) and I asked him about the impact the fired coach had on his career after the scrum had broken off.
“He tries to make every player a better player and a better person as well, he takes the time and he truly cares about you,” said Stamkos. “For me, coming into this league, you’re known as an offensive guy and you want to be a good, two-way player. (Boucher) put me in situations to get better in that regard, whether it was taking face-offs at the end of the game or being out there in the last minute, those areas, when we were winning, it’s fun to be in those areas. It’s a challenge and you try to flourish into that player.
“This year, it’s been tough. We’ve been down a couple goals late in a lot of games late and trying to score and pushing. It’s taxing on you physically, mentally. Like I said, it’s about results in this league and when you don’t get the results that you want, the business side of it is you have to change things and hopefully, things get better.”
Things didn’t get better for the Lightning on Sunday, although they put up plenty of fight.
The Jets got several key saves from Ondrej Pavelec in the first period and throughout the game, the most impressive being a glove save off Cory Conacher, who walked in all alone but couldn’t beat the goalie with his backhand deke during the second period.
“He made a few of those tonight. It’s almost bad because we almost expect it out of him,” said Jets winger Blake Wheeler, who had two assists. “When he gets scored on we’re kinda like, ‘What’s he doing back there?’ (Pavelec) has been awesome for us, he was awesome again tonight. There was a few times they could’ve gotten back into the game and he shut the door and if you are going to win these tight games, you are going to need that out of your goalie.”
“Pavs has been arguably our best player pretty much for a long stretch of time,” added Jets head coach Claude Noel. “I’m just thankful he’s in the net. I thought he did his part and more. He really helps us and it shows.”
The Jets got on the board first when Wheeler stripped the puck from Stamkos and found Bryan Little in the slot.
Little showed good patience and took advantage of a screen by Andrew Ladd, beating a fallen Cedrick Desjardins with his shot at 14:02 of the opening period.
“I found (the puck) on my tape out of nowhere,” said Little, who snapped a nine-game drought that dated back to a game against the Lightning in Tampa back on Mar. 7. “The goalie didn’t know where it was and if I’d missed that, I probably would have been pretty upset.”
That goal clearly lifted the spirits of the Jets, who added to their lead just 2:35 into the second period when Dustin Byfuglien walked in from the left point and buried his shot past Desjardins for a power-play marker — snapping a 1-for-15 slump during the past five games.
“That was a big power play goal in general,” said Ladd. “We haven’t had the greatest power play the last little bit and to get a big goal like that to start a game, it gave us a little momentum.”
When it looked like the Lightning might be spinning their wheels a bit and perhaps a bit vulnerable, Jets winger Chris Thorburn took an untimely kneeing minor in the offensive zone, leaving the door open for the Lightning to get back into the game with a power-play goal.
Sure enough, they needed only seven seconds before Stamkos wired a one-timer past Pavelec, cutting the deficit to 2-1.
But 3:15 later, with the two teams playing 4-on-4 hockey, Ladd made a perfect pass in the slot to Toby Enstrom, who roofed his shot and restored the two-goal cushion.
Conacher would add a deflection on an Eric Brewer point shot at 5:01 of the third period, but the Jets were full marks for being able to protect the one-goal lead.
“I thought we did a good job of managing it and defending the lead,” said Little. “We didn’t try to do anything crazy. We just played it safe.”
Enstrom, who was back after missing 19 games with a shoulder injury, looked right at home on the blue-line after his five-plus week absence, scoring the game-winner and finishing with 30 shifts for 24:23 of ice time.
The smooth skating blue-liner gave the power play a boost and also made his partner Byfuglien, feel more at home as he played his best game in some time.
Enstrom didn’t speak after the game, but several teammates were raving about the game he played and his overall contribution.
“Toby helps out a lot, his presence, his patience, seems to calm everybody down — especially from our zone and out,” said Ladd. “He makes a lot of great plays, little plays that a lot of people maybe don’t notice but help us get out of our end and into the other team’s end.”
Other odds-and-ends from Sunday:
* Eric Tangradi got a bump to the third line with Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood, taking 14 shifts for 12:19 of ice time. He had a shot on goal, but had a great scoring chance that he fired just wide in the first period and had three hits.
* With Enstrom back and Mark Stuart and Ron Hainsey out with injuries, Grant Clitsome moved onto a pairing with Zach Bogosian and did a good job, playing the most shifts (32) and second-most minutes (25:33, just three seconds fewer than Byfuglien). Clitsome has been dogged by turnovers of late, but played much better choices and minimized his mistakes in this one, while seeing plenty of Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.
* Alex Burmistrov took 15 shifts for 11:28 and got a bump to the second line for much of the third period, skating with Evander Kane and Olli Jokinen. He didn’t have a shot on goal, but had two hits to go along with two giveaways and one takeaway.
* Antti Miettinen had only two shifts in the third period for 14 shifts and 11:26 of ice time in the game. I asked Noel whether Miettinen got banged up during the game but he said he did not.
* Great reaction from Blake Wheeler about the goalie interference penalty he took after a collision (I use the term loosely) with Desjardins behind the Bolts net early in the third period. Did Wheeler actually hit Desjardins?
“You know, I think I got a little piece of him,” said Wheeler. “I was just going for the puck. I tried to avoid him and I think I brushed him a little bit and I think he did a good job (of acting).”
* It was another steady night for the third pair of Derek Meech and Paul Postma. Each played more than 12 minutes and neither had a turnover in the game.
* One last thought on the Lightning situation, as many have said, I think you can make a strong case to hire either Lindy Ruff or Jon Cooper. My instinct tells me the Lightning go with the more experienced choice in Ruff, but they would risk losing Cooper at the end of the season if that’s the route they choose. There’s been some speculation that Ruff could bring Cooper on as an associate coach, so that will be interesting to monitor as well.
So the Jets finish the four-game homestand with a record of 2-2, posting wins over the Boston Bruins and the Lightning, while dropping both games to the Washington Capitals.
All-in-all, it was a decent homestand for the Jets and Sunday was a strong response to a pair of ugly losses.
The latest in a long line of BIG games is set for Tuesday night in North Carolina as the Hurricanes host the Jets at PNC Arena.
Carolina has been idle since a loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday and will be anxious to try and cut into the four-point deficit they now face in the chase for top spot in the Southeast Division.
The Hurricanes hold three games in hand, so the Jets understand the importance of trying to win those head-to-head match-ups (the second in three games comes next Saturday afternoon at MTS Centre).
The Jets, who travel tomorrow and won’t have any availability, have 15 games left and we’ll take a closer look at the upcoming schedule on tomorrow’s blog.