Say this about the Winnipeg Jets, they’ve found a way to keep things awfully interesting during this playoff push.
Tuesday night provided the latest example as the Jets shook off the rust of a four-day break with a strong start, ended the first period on even terms after a blunder by Ron Hainsey and then took charge in the second period on goals from Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd.
When holding a lead after 40 minutes of play this season, the Jets were an impressive 16-1 coming into the contest, so you got the feeling that the struggling Lightning might not offer much resistance during the third.
Turns out that wasn’t the case at all.
After Dustin Byfuglien failed to clear the zone, former Manitoba Moose LW Pierre-Cedric Labrie bounced a rebound off Byfuglien and in for his second goal of the season and at 11:17, Steven Stamkos whistled home a shot to the blocker side to even the score.
A two-goal cushion was lost and the tide had turned.
Was this the moment the Jets were going to come apart at the seams?
Nope. Instead of folding, the Jets collected their thoughts, got the game to overtime and won it in the shootout.
What was said after the Lightning tied the contest?
“We needed to settle down, that was pretty much all it was,” said Ladd, who was an absolute force in this game with two goals and an assist before clinching the game with the second shootout goal. “We were still there and had a chance to win the hockey game. That was the message.”
Mike Santorelli, claimed off waivers from the Florida Panthers back on Apr. 3, also scored in the shootout — making his biggest contribution in the five games since joining the Jets.
This shootout success shouldn’t come as a big surprise, since he was 9-of-18 during his NHL career when he was acquired and is now 10-for-19.
Success in the penalty-shot contest was only one of the reasons the Jets picked him up and being able to deliver in such a big spot brought a smile to the face of Santorelli, though he seemed a bit uncomfortable when pressed about what’s allowed him to have positive results in the shootout.
“I don’t know, I just kind of read off the goalie. I’ve got a couple moves, I go in there thinking of one and stick with it. Luckily it went in,” said Santorelli, who has one assist in five games with the Jets. “I don’t know what to tell ya. I can’t tell you the secrets. I’m happy I got the chance to go out there and do it.
“Today was my first one (with the Jets), so I was a little nervous. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. It was great to get that (goal) and to get the extra point, which is great. Every point is huge right now. There’s only five games left and you need all the points you can get. It’s a tight race. It’s going to go right down to the wire.”
Columnist Paul Friesen looked closely at the shootout in his game column tonight, so be sure to check that out.
Here’s Noel on having Santorelli shoot second (after Wheeler):
“He’s been a scorer his whole career, first of all. So his background is good. You’d have to be asleep at the wheel not to know he was a scorer in shootouts in Florida. You just do your work, you know,” said Noel. “He pulled the trigger again. He’s done it. He’s clipping along at like 50%. So that’s why we put him out there.”
One thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed were the two right pad stops by Ondrej Pavelec, who historically is not a big fan of shootouts.
You wouldn’t have known it from Tuesday’s results, as Pavelec stopped Teddy Purcell and Richard Panik by pushing to his post and extending his right leg to prevent close calls.
Pavelec has now allowed just four goals on 18 chances in shootouts this season (77.8% save percentage), pretty decent numbers.
Although it was the top trio of Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little that led the charge on Tuesday, there was plenty of praise dished out by players and head coach Claude Noel toward Santorelli, Eric Tangradi and Alex Burmistrov, who played more than 20 minutes for the first time this season.
Tangradi made an excellent move in the first period and Santorelli clanged his shot off the crossbar, but the line was able to generate a few other chances offensively and produce some important zone time as well.
Kirk Penton examined the play of the third line in his sidebar tonight.
Noel made it known that Santorelli is more than just a shootout specialist.
“You guys are focused on him and the shootout. I get where you’re coming with the stories, but he’s played well for us,” said Noel. “He hit the crossbar one time, he’s got some good chemistry, he skates, he’s good on the forecheck. He’s done some good things for our team past the shootout. He’s a guy that has shown he can score at this level.”
Wheeler also showered some praise on Santorelli.
“That’s huge, it’s awesome. He’s been playing well for us and that line has been playing well for us, they created a lot of scoring opportunities and a lot of momentum for our team,” said Wheeler. “(Santorelli) is a guy who is confident in those situations, we’ve seen it playing against him. He’s pretty nasty in those shootouts.”
Santorelli and Tangradi each had four shots on goal, while Burmistrov had two of his own.
Tangradi also took exception to a hit by Nate Thompson on Burmistrov, dropping the gloves in a scrap that was mostly a wrestling match. It was sure to earn points with his teammates for Tangradi, as sticking up for a teammate always does.
One of the biggest questions coming into the game surrounded how the Jets would handle the four days between game.
No doubt they were well-rested, but how long would it take to shake off the rust?
Turns out, not very long as Ladd scored his first goal at 1:23 of the opening period after taking a drop-pass from Wheeler at the blue line and snapping a shot through the legs of Ben Bishop.
“It’s a little strange, actually, because you get four days off and your body kind of doesn’t know how to react to it, I guess,” said Jets defenceman Grant Clitsome. “We did a good job coming out with some energy early on.”
The Jets second goal was a thing of beauty, as Ladd outworked Victor Hedman along the boards and found Wheeler in the slot. Wheeler showed great patience and waited until Bishop was down and out before lifting a shot over him at 8:37 of the 2nd to make it 2-1.
“(Ladd) gave me the puck and I saw a defenceman coming at me and I saw (Little) on the backdoor. I wanted to hold onto (the puck) and get it onto my forehand,” said Wheeler, who added five hits in the contest to go along with his three points. “My first instinct was to pass it to (Little) but they got back pretty quick, so I decided to wait (Bishop) out.
“I waited just long enough and was able to put it home.”
The ability to keep their composure is something the Jets can take out of this game as they push forward.
“Sometimes when a team grabs the momentum from you like that, you have to re-assess things,” said Wheeler. “It was still a 3-3 game, points are at a premium right now, so there’s no reason to panic. You can’t start doing things that are out of character for our team. You have to start with hanging on to get the one point and then try to win the game in overtime the shootout. Good teams are able to do that. They’re able to refocus when things are going a little south.”
Ladd wired home a wrist shot with two seconds left in a minor penalty to Vinny Lecavalier late in the 2nd to make it a 3-1 advantage.
The focus of my column was about how Ladd showed the way in this important game, but here’s a quote from Noel that I couldn’t sneak in.
“He drives the bus. He was a pretty effective player tonight. He was real good, he made some good plays,” said Noel. “His shot obviously really was going. But that’s what (Ladd) can do. (He) can do those things and really help your team, both in the game, on the ice and off the ice. He’s real good.”
Speaking of Clitsome, he had a potential goal disallowed with 6:58 left in the second period as referee Dean Morton waved off the marker immediately, ruling that Ladd was in the crease and had interfered with Bishop.
A slow motion replay showed that Ladd made contact with Bishop initially but backed off seemingly before the shot was taken.
The call sent the MTS Centre crowd into a fury and Noel reacted with plenty of anger and presumably some harsh words for Morton.
No penalty for goalie interference was called on the play, but the face-off went outside the zone.
Ultimately, the ruling didn’t hurt the Jets and there weren’t any complaints from the dressing room afterward but there may have been had the shootout gone the other way.
In the end, the Jets were happy to collect their two points and go home.
Both Ladd and Wheeler said at this time of year, there’s no need to critique the wins and that W’s are all that really matter.
Noel said the same thing.
“I would’ve rather taken it in regulation, but that’s just my own personal preference,” said Noel. “The two points are just as valuable any way you can get them at this point.”
With the win, the Jets improve to 22-19-2 (46 points) but remain ninth in the East for the time being. The Rangers are 8th but hold a higher winning percentage as they hold a game in hand.
The Jets have five games left in the regular season and return to action on Thursday against the struggling Carolina Hurricanes, who were leading the Southeast Division at one point but have only posted two wins during their past 17 games.
It’s important to note that one of those wins came at MTS Centre against the Jets on Mar. 30 in a 3-1 setback for the home side.
Taking Wednesday off, but Penton and Friesen will have full coverage on Jets on Wednesday.
Check it out in Thursday’s paper and online at www.winnipegsun.com.