There was a significant bump in the road for the Winnipeg Jets, but ultimately it was another important win on this occasionally rocky highway.
Despite failing to hold a two-goal lead in the third period for the second straight game, the Jets found a way to get it done when it mattered most, squeaking out a 4-3 overtime win when Dustin Byfuglien potted a rebound on a 2-on-1 rush with captain Andrew Ladd at 1:23 of overtime.
The latest victory allowed the Jets to extend their season-high winning streak to five games, an impressive turnaround that comes on the heels of a five-game losing skid that put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
“It’s good to win, we just need to be better in the last 10 minutes when we have two-goal leads. Obviously, it’s two in a row and all of the goals were in the last 10, we need to be better there. No question,” said Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey. “It’s nothing blatant, it’s a point shot, bounce off our guy and a rebound. But we’re spending enough time in our zone that eventually stuff can happen.”
“At those points, when they come back and tie (the game), you’ve got to be able to overcome that, stay positive, play your game and find ways to win,” added Ladd. “We’ve done that the last two games. We don’t necessarily like the way we’ve done that, you don’t like to give up a 3-1 lead but you find ways to win those games and it’s a little easier to take.”
Byfuglien was a major factor in this one, delivering the winning goal but also failing to provide suitable coverage on the game-tying marker from Alexander Semin that came with 1:12 left in regulation on a shift that also saw him get caught in the offensive zone after joining the attack with the Jets protecting a one-goal lead.
Perhaps the most impressive thing is that Byfuglien didn’t let the mistake get him down and he was able to come through when his team needed him most.
“When you’re going hard to the net, sometimes you get good bounces and I think Buff deserved to get the game-winner. He played a big game for us,” said Jets winger Blake Wheeler. “I don’t know. You have to ask him that. He might have got a little cranky or pissed off. Buff is normally a guy who is a happy-go-lucky, goofy guy. When you get him a little bit pissed off, it’s pretty scary. I had nothing to do with it.”
Byfuglien didn’t reveal much when asked why his intensity level was a little higher on this night, which led to a handful of booming hits.
“I had a couple opportunities to make some hits and I took them,” said Byfuglien, who played 24 minutes, had six shots on goal and seven hits in the contest. “I probably wouldn’t say I was mad, I had a couple opportunities to make some hits and I made them.”
Byfuglien was in a playful mood when he spoke with reporters and explained what happened on the game-tying goal by Semin.
“I had position and it bounced to him on the backside, right to him and right to his stick,” said Byfuglien. “That’s a guy whose stick seems to find the puck a lot. It wasn’t easy.”
He also talked about how much fun it is to be having success as a team at this time of the year, but noted there is more to be done during the final four games of the regular season.
“We’ve grown a lot in here, we’re learning to play the right way but there’s little things that we can work on to get us better too,” said Byfuglien. “This is the fun time of the year, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us still and we just have got to keep going.”
Byfuglien was a central figure in my game analysis story, but here’s a quote from head coach Claude Noel that I wasn’t able to sneak in.
“He was physical,” said Noel. “You notice some things from a physical standpoint. So he looked like he was involved, certainly from that standpoint. He did some good things and did some things that were not so good. I’d like all players to be consistent, but that’s a really hard thing to do.”
Here’s what Ladd said when I asked him what it means for the Jets when Byfuglien brings the physical dimension to the rest of the package.
“You see the excitement it brings, to our fans and our bench, it’s a big boost to our club,” said Ladd. “We’ve played a lot of games in a short amount of time and to have someone like that who can lift your bench up, with a big hit, is something you can rally around.
“He was great all night. He was all over the ice, physical and even defensively, breaking up plays. He had a great stick and did a lot of great things. He was a big reason that we won tonight.”
During his scrum with the media, Ladd cracked a few jokes, including one where he said he wouldn’t pass to Byfuglien in that situation.
“I’ve seen Buff shoot before and he needs to be a little closer to the net,” said Ladd.
Jokes notwithstanding, the Jets top line of Ladd, Wheeler and Bryan Little showed the way offensively, combining for eight points (Ladd had three assists, Wheeler had a goal and two assists and Little had two helpers). That gives the top trio eight goals and 30 points (Ladd has four goals, 11 points, Wheeler has three goals and 10 points and Little has one goal, nine points) during the five-game winning streak.
The numbers are remarkable and the impact the line is having on the Jets’ fortunes is equally so.
“They’re playing as good as I’ve seen lately,” said Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey. “I’d love them to continue.”
Speaking of being in the zone, I’m guessing you’ve already seen it by now but Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec played a key role in this one as well and his second-period stop on ‘Canes D-man Justin Faulk was simply ridiculous. It essentially puts his save-of-the-year against Philadelphia Flyers F Jakub Voracek to shame.
With Faulk jumping in from the left point during a power play, Pavelec stretched across and stuck the paddle of his stick out and knocked the puck out of the air to prevent a sure goal that would have tied the game 1-1.
The save came after Pavelec stoned Faulk with his right pad earlier in the same power play and brought an electrified crowd to its feet for a standing ovation, an act the Jets’ workhorse netminder noticed and appreciated.
“It’s fun. I enjoy it but you have to focus right away for the next shot,” said Pavelec, who called the save itself lucky.
When I asked him if he thought it was the biggest save he’d made this year, Pavelec wasn’t 100% sure.
“Probably, it’s tough to say,” said Pavelec. “It doesn’t matter how you make the save, right? I was just happy they didn’t score from that power play. They had some chances there.”
Here’s what Wheeler thought of the save itself and the performance, in general.
“It’s huge. It’s one that should be in the back of the net. You feel like you almost got a free goal there, when they’re not able to capitalize. Sometimes you need those to get you over the hump,” said Wheeler. “He’s one of those goalies that they scored three goals on him tonight, but it could have been a lot more.
“Some of the saves he made, not many guys are capable of that. We’re lucky to have a guy like Pav-o on our side, because of the way he competes and the things he does for our team every night.”
It was interesting that Noel made an alteration on his defence pairings, moving Zach Bogosian and Grant Clitsome together while playing Byfuglien with Hainsey.
Bogosian opened the scoring at 12:13 of the opening period, taking a pass from Little on the rush and pushing the puck in with one hand for his fourth goal of the season. Bogosian added an assist for another two-point night.
Speaking of D-men, Paul Postma helped the Jets’ struggling power play get on the board at 8:27 of the second period, jumping up from the right point and taking a pass from Wheeler before roofing his shot for his fourth goal. Smart read, with nice finish.
Wheeler supplied the other goal for the Jets, taking a pass from Little through the middle of the ice and blowing past the Hurricanes’ defence before beating Justin Peters for his 17th goal of the campaign.
There wasn’t a lot of help on the out-of-town scoreboard, as the 7th-place New York Islanders spanked the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 and the 8th-place New York Rangers smoked the Florida Panthers 6-1 to hold their spots in the East, but the Ottawa Senators did the Jets a huge favour, snapping the Washington Capitals eight-game winning streak with a 3-1 win in the nation’s capital.
That leaves the Jets in 9th spot, but pulls them within two points of the Caps, with a game at Verizon Center looming large next Tuesday.
Before that possible date with destiny, the Jets face the Islanders on Saturday afternoon.
It’s going to be an exciting tilt, as the Islanders play an up-tempo game and are really fun to watch.
John Tavares has to be considered for the Hart Trophy right now and the Jets are in for the stiffest test of this six-game homestand that has provided some stress but ultimately led to them taking 10 of a possible 10 points.
Leave it to Hainsey to help keep things in perspective.
“We were coming off a five-game losing streak, so it’s a five-game winning streak,” said Hainsey. “It’s 5-5 over the last 10, so it’s just average.”
I’m off on Friday, leaving Jets coverage to colleagues Kirk Penton and columnist Paul Friesen.
Don’t forget to join them for the weekly live Jets chat from 2 to 3 p.m.
I’ll be checking in from MTS Centre on Saturday to help tee up Jets/Islanders.