Jets survive slow start to defeat Predators

- March 2nd, 2014

NASHVILLE — The Winnipeg Jets survived one of their worst periods of the Paul Maurice era on Saturday afternoon before finding their way and earning a 3-1 win over the Nashville Predators in a pivotal Central Division clash at Bridgestone Arena.

While the uneven play against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday was expected, given the long layoff, it was odd to see the Jets come out so flat on Saturday in the first period, given what was at stake.

But sure enough, the Predators were all over the Jets in the early going and were it not for some huge saves by goalie Ondrej Pavelec, this one could have gotten out of hand early.

“You have to give them credit, they were coming at the beginning of the game,” said Jets defenceman Mark Stuart, who had an assist in just under 23 minutes of work. “We were a little bit slower than them. They were beating us to pucks, getting pucks deep. We were able to weather it. Pavelec, you can’t say enough about how he played. He kept us in it. We were able to reward him with a few goals.”

The Jets needed more than half a period to record their first shot on goal and didn’t really have a true scoring chance until Mike Fisher was called for roughing and the Jets went to the power play.

“It’s the only one we had all game but I thought we got some momentum back from there and we were able to keep going at that point,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd, who scored his 15th goal on a tip-in late in the second for what proved to be the game-winner. “Our goaltender was extremely sharp from the get-go and he was the difference in the game.”

Pavelec doesn’t mind the heavy workload on Saturday.

“That’s the way it goes,” said Pavelec, whose much-debated numbers have risen steadily since Jan. 13. “I saw a few shots in maybe the first five minutes and that helped a lot.”

One of Pavelec’s best saves came off Preds centre David Legwand during an early power play.

There were plenty of folks (myself included) waiting to see how Pavelec was going to respond during the stretch run, but you can put me in the group who believes he can keep this up.

Pavelec has been playing with renewed confidence since Maurice took over and he has tightened up some of his mechanics after the Olympics as well. His positioning has been a lot better and he’s showing a better base, relying on his athletic ability less but can still go to that well when he needs to, as he did on several occasions Saturday.

As I wrote earlier in the week, this is a prime opportunity for Pavelec to show that he can handle the pressure of the playoff push and provide the type of goaltending (as in above average-to-great) required for the Jets to find a way into the post-season.

Once again, the Jets were excellent on the penalty kill, going six-for-six to help their league-best road efficiency rise to 88.2% and the current streak to 33 consecutive penalty kills, since Anaheim Ducks defenceman Cam Fowler scored early in the first period back on Jan. 21.

What are the Jets doing so well on the PK, especially on the road?

“We’ve had a little too much practice with the PK lately, but it’s been strong,” said Stuart, a key member of the unit. “We’re being aggressive and we’re being consistent with our aggressiveness. We’re able to get clears, which is big. When you can get the puck all the way down the ice, it takes away some steam from the power play.”

There’s no doubt the Jets need to be much better defensively and they’re playing with fire if they’re giving up 35-to-40 shots against teams like the Coyotes and Predators who don’t have as many offensive weapons as some of the other teams they’ll be facing during the final 20 games of the regular season.

Centre Olli Jokinen broke the deadlock at 5:02 of the second period, taking an outstanding cross-ice feed from rookie defenceman Jacob Trouba at the far blue-line before walking in and ripping a high wrister over the glove of Carter Hutton.

Jokinen, who scored his 14th goal of the season, had a funny answer when I asked him if he saw an opening on the glove side.

“That’s the only shot I have. I can’t shoot anywhere else,” Jokinen said with a grin.

The Jets third goal came after a powerful rush by Blake Wheeler, who blew past Shea Weber and cut sharply to the net but was stopped by Hutton before Devin Setoguchi crashed the net and poked the loose puck in for his 11th goal of the season.

Winnipeg lost forward James Wright to a lower-body injury late in the second period after he got tangled up with Predators defenceman Seth Jones. He did not return and is receiving further evaluation today, though Maurice told reporters that he expects Wright with miss some time with an injury.

It will be interesting to see if Wright requires time on injured reserve, as it would create an opening for Matt Halischuk to come off IR and possibly return to the lineup on the fourth line with Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn.

Speaking of line shifting, Maurice didn’t like the way things were going for the Jets, so he flip-flopped Evander Kane and Setoguchi.

Setoguchi got bumped to the unit with Wheeler and Mark Scheifele while Kane slid onto a grouping with Jokinen and Dustin Byfuglien.

I asked Maurice about the move after the game and he said he was contemplating the switch for a while.

Part of the decision has to do with adding some speed to the Jokinen unit and he liked the way both units responded during the game.

Back to Slater quickly. In his second game, he was bumped up to 12 shifts for just under nine minutes of ice time, an increase of nearly three minutes, the bulk of that coming while playing shorthanded for two minutes and 11 seconds.

Slater had another rough game in the face-off circle, winning just two of seven draws (29%) but you have to remember that he hasn’t taken draws in an actual game since late October, so it’s going to take a bit before he gets his timing back.

The Jets won only 41% of the draws and Brayn Little (14-for-23, 61%) was the only one of the regulars that finished above 50%.

Going into Sunday’s action, the Jets were tied in points with the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks (who face the Ottawa Senators in the Heritage Classic later this afternoon).

The Stars have two games in hand on the Jets, so they continue to hold down the final wild-card spot.

The Jets, with 24 regulation and overtime wins (ROW) are also one ROW behind the Stars and Canucks, so they remain below the playoff line right now as they get set to open a three-game homestand on Tuesday at MTS Centre.

“Every game is big down the stretch,” said Setoguchi. “You can look at the standings and see where everyone is. For us, it’s one game. A step in the right direction. We’ve got another big one coming up. Just preparing for the game the right way is what we’ve got to do right now.”

Here’s the link for all the coverage that appeared in Sunday’s paper, plus some extra bonus coverage from the live blog that includes VIDEO reaction:

http://www.winnipegsun.com/2014/03/01/jets-earn-separation-in-standings-with-big-win-over-predators

Since my flight is later in the day, colleague Kirk Penton was on hand at Jets practice today and he’ll handle most of the coverage.

What I can tell you already is that D Toby Enstrom missed the workout for maintenance purposes, Setoguchi had the flu.

I’m taking Monday off, but will be back Tuesday with a pre-game tee-up following the morning skate before the game against the New York Islanders.

Categories: Hockey

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