Jets pull out unlikely win vs Blackhawks

- January 27th, 2014

CHICAGO — If you saw that Winnipeg Jets coming, buying a lottery ticket should be at the very top of your to-do list.

Or maybe just head straight to Las Vegas.

After the first period at United Center on Sunday — a period that saw the Chicago Blackhawks score at 1:21 and ultimately hold a decisive 18-2 edge in shots on goal and an even wider mark when it came to puck possession and territorial play — the Jets looked like a team that was spent.

Out of gas and perhaps emotionally spent as well, which is not exactly a good formula while playing for the fourth time in six days and facing a third Western Conference powerhouse and legitimate Stanley Cup contender in the defending champion Blackhawks.

I’m pretty sure Jets head coach Paul Maurice wasn’t trying to employ the “try to lull your opponent to sleep” strategy, but sometimes when the tank it empty, you try to hang on and hope that somewhere during the course of the game, your team finds its collective legs and you somehow find a way.

“We understand what’s happening and I’ve seen games like that before,” said Maurice. “The fact that were not out of it means we are absolutely in it.”

Jets backup Al Montoya let in a softie to Brandon Bollig as the Blackhawks’ fourth line was buzzing, but the truth was he stopped a golden chance or two earlier in the same shift.

So despite playing for the first time since Jan. 5, there were more early signs that Montoya might come back sharp than the one goal against that might have suggested a blowout was maybe in the offing.

Montoya’s ability to shake off bad goals was evident on Sunday as he was able to withstand a ridiculous number of high-quality chances against.

When I asked him after the game what happened on the goal, he went to his trademark answer: “I don’t remember,” he said, before flashing a wide grin.

As I wrote about in my game column, this was an incredibly special victory for Montoya, who grew up in Chicago and was a big Blackhawks fan.

This was Montoya’s third start at United Center and second of the season as a member of the Jets and getting the job done in front of friends and family members meant a lot to him.

“He should have had the first one,” cracked Maurice during his post-game address. “You know what, he was our game. He got better and better. He was fantastic in the first, he had one squeak by him. But he was great and gave us a chance to stay in the game long enough to have the rebound that we did.

“It’s a confidence builder for him and for our guys. But from my understanding (Montoya) has played a lot like that all year. I’ve seen him play some really solid games. (Sunday) we asked him to be more special than we should have in the first.”

Although Maurice has said he’s fine riding the hot goaltender, you should expect Ondrej Pavelec to be back between the pipes on Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators.

Montoya has shown he can come back sharp after a long absence and although Pavelec didn’t surrender a goal or two that he’d like to have back against the Maple Leafs, he’s playing much better under Maurice and there’s no reason to upset the apple cart here.

How were the Jets able to swing the momentum during the third period, after being outshot 27-6 after two periods?

Basically, by having a chuckle at their own expense and realizing they were one shot away from tying the game.

Then it was a low shot from the left point by Mark Stuart that went off the pad of Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford and landed right onto the tape of Blake Wheeler, who blasted home his 20th goal of the season to start the comeback.

Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa, who is one of the best all-around players in the NHL, had a brain cramp a few minutes later and his giveaway landed right on the stick of Jets captain Andrew Ladd, who blasted his shot off the shin pad of defenceman Duncan Keith and past Crawford for what turned out to be the game-winner.

Ladd had a funny line after the game when asked about what happened on the play, suggesting that maybe Hossa had a flashback to when the two men played together in Chicago.

Regardless of what happened, the Jets had been on the other end of the giveaway that resulted in a goal against on many occasions this season and were happy to take advantage of the gift.

The Jets held steady throughout the third period and Wheeler added his second goal of the game into an empty net with 75 seconds left in regulation to secure the victory.

“You can’t use our schedule or the last week as an excuse, with four games in six nights or playing last night against Toronto, all of those little things. Sometimes that can kind of slow you up at the start of the game,” said Wheeler. “They were rested and they’re obviously an explosive team. They had us hemmed into our zone for a lot of the first period. We were able to calm the storm because of (Montoya) there and we were able to create some energy on our end.

“We were getting our asses kicked, for lack of a better term but we still believed we could win the game. Two weeks ago? I don’t know if I could say that, that on our bench that if we would have believed we could come back and win that game. Confidence is a funny thing. It comes and goes on a whim and right now, we’re feeling good about ourselves and it’s allowing us to get some points that maybe we don’t deserve some nights.”

And now ladies and gentlemen, you can officially call the Jets and Blackhawks rivals — since Winnipeg found a way to beat Chicago for the first time in four tries this season and five tries overall since returning to the NHL in 2011-12.

“It’s huge,” said Jets winger Michael Frolik, who helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup last season. “Coming into this building and winning the game is great. Hopefully, it helps us build the confidence. We just need to go back to work, learn from mistakes we made and then keep going.”

Although he didn’t end up on the score sheet, Dustin Byfuglien played his best game against his former team, as he was engaged physically, finishing with eight hits and finding himself involved in a lot of scrums after the whistle.

“I thought (Byfuglien) was fantastic,” said Maurice. “For me, he’s been intense. I can only go on what I know and what I’ve seen, he’s great in the room, he has fun with the game of hockey and a real high skill level and he doesn’t mind throwing the body around a little bit. He’s involved. I don’t want to say pleasant surprise, because I’d heard that about him. But I think it was just a function of what the team was going through and because he’s a key player, he’s a bit of a lightning rod. My experience with him has been nothing but positive.”

It was another quiet night for the Jets’ fourth line as Eric O’Dell (four shifts for 3:18), Anthony Peluso (three shifts for 2:59) and Chris Thobrun (seven shifts for 4:14) all saw limited minutes and the quest to find a group that has the trust of Maurice remains a work in progress.

It’s obvious the Jets miss Jim Slater (sports hernia) and Matt Halischuk (wrist), for that matter. Once those two return, there’s a good chance they’ll both be on the fourth line so O’Dell, Peluso, Thorburn, James Wright and Eric Tangradi are essentially going to be vying for limited minutes.

But that’s a story for another day.

The Jets are now 6-1 under Maurice and while a larger sample size is required, it’s been obvious during the past week that the Jets have found a way to hang around with Chicago, Anaheim and San Jose.

With 28 games left in the regular season and plenty of ground to make up, talk of the playoffs is best kept on the backburner, but the Jets are giving people reason to believe there’s reason for optimism and that they won’t be left playing out the string when the calendar flips to March.

In the short term, the Jets have six games left before the Olympic break — two games at home, vs the Predators on Tuesday and the Vancouver Canucks become the final team to play at MTS Centre since the Jets returned on Friday.

Then the Jets head out for a four-game road swing that features games against the Montreal Canadiens, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues.

Wheeler was asked if he felt there was still time to get into the thick of the playoff picture?

“Absolutely,” said Wheeler. “But we can’t look at the big picture. We don’t have that luxury. We’ve got to focus every game, one game at a time. It’s obviously really cliché to say that, but we can’t be playing for the playoffs right now because we’re still a ways back.

“We focus on every game and doing the same things we’ve been doing recently, (then) we’re going to give ourselves an opportunity to win every night. When you do that, you’re going to find yourselves on the right end of the stick more often than not.”

Speaking of that congested playoff picture, with a record of 25-24-5, the Jets have 55 points and currently sit seven points out of the final playoff spot in the Central Division, currently held by the Minnesota Wild (who are eighth in the West).

The Jets have crept up to 11th in the West, just one point behind the Dallas Stars, three behind the Phoenix Coyotes (both of whom hold two games in hand on Winnipeg), but are only one point up on the Predators, so they can’t afford a loss on Tuesday.

The Predators, meanwhile, are coming off a 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and are 4-4-2 in their past 10.

Winnipegger Colin Wilson has been struggling, while Mike Fisher has six goals and 14 points in 16 games since Dec. 28 and Eric Nystrom produced his first career hat trick and the first four-goal game in Predators’ history last Friday against the Calgary Flames.

The Predators recalled 6-foot-4 centre Colton Scissons on Monday and he’s expected to make his NHL debut against the Jets on Tuesday.

Scissons, who was chosen in the second round (50th overall) of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, has 16 goals and 28 points in 42 games as a rookie with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League after a strong Western Hockey League career with the Kelowna Rockets.

The Jets took forward Lukas Sutter with the 39th pick in the 2012 draft and he’s back in the WHL as an overage player and has 10 goals and 22 points in 41 games with the Red Deer Rebels.

The Jets were off on Monday after traveling home from Chicago following Sunday’s game, though there was some news on the prospect front as 2013 seventh rounder (190th overall) Brenden Kichton was added to the roster for the AHL All-Star Classic, which will be played in St. John’s next month.

Kichton, a smart, puck-moving defenceman, is having a strong season with the St. John’s IceCaps and has eight goals, 27 assists and 35 points in 43 games as a rookie.

I’ll check back in with you following the morning skate on Tuesday with the regular game-day blog tee-up.

Be sure to read my column in Tuesday’s paper and online at www.winnipegsun.com on the emergence of Wheeler as a goal-scorer.

Categories: Hockey

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1 comment

  1. Robert Bianchi says:

    Enjoyed your article. I think a lot of people saw this coming. These guys are on a roll that has allowed a lot of energy to break out. The most amazing thing IMO, is the energy they brought after playing the night before.Lots of hitting helped immensely.

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