The NHL season is so short the Winnipeg Jets experienced relief, progress and renewed optimism all on the same night.
Shrugging off two bad losses, the Jets rallied to score a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday night at the MTS Centre, making themselves and their fans feel better, largely because they never trailed.
"I think we’ve done a good job of that this year. When we’ve had the lead going to the third period, we’ve been able to lock it down and come away with the win," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd, his team now 12-1 this season when leading after 40 minutes. "It’s nice to get back to the winning ways, get a little confidence back scoring-wise, and now we’ve got a big game Tuesday."
With 15 games left, the victory lifted the Jets to 36 points, still first in the Southeast Division — making them the Eastern Conference’s third seed today — four points ahead of Carolina, their opponents Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C., and five up on Washington.
The other challengers are jockeying for position, too. The Rangers are ahead at 33 points and the Islanders are up to 31.
The home team did show more life in the early going Sunday night, but it was goalie Ondrej Pavelec who might have been the best early. Pavelec made a remarkable close-in stop on another Ondrej — Palat — and then his team backed him up later in the period when Blake Wheeler checked the puck away from Steven Stamkos in the Lightning slot. The puck went to Bryan Little, who buried the game’s first goal.
"I think it (Little’s goal) helped us," said Jets coach Claude Noel. "For us, you’re kind of gripping your stick a little tighter and there’s enough stress in our world. So I think the fact we got on the board energized the building a bit."
More penalties in the second, six, and that was danger for the home team, though each team managed a power-play goal from the mayhem. Stamkos had Tampa Bay’s, making it 2-1 Jets, but goals from Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom, in his first game back from injury, helped the Jets win this period, too.
"He was good," Noel said of Enstrom, who had the eventual winner after missing 19 games. "You can see what he can bring... with his playmaking and his thinking. There was a little bit of rust in there, especially early, but he was good."
Holding a 3-1 lead, Pavelec made a wicked glove stop on a Cory Conacher breakaway deke late in the period.
"Pavs has been arguably our best player for a long stretch of time," Noel said.
Five minutes into the third, Conacher tipped an ordinary wrister from Eric Brewer at the point and it was a one-goal game as the Lightning tried to rally just hours after their GM, Steve Yzerman, fired head coach Guy Boucher. The Jets managed to nurse the lead and the points to the final buzzer.
"They didn’t give up and give credit to them but I thought we did a good job down to the last second of defending the lead," said Little, who had another impact night with a goal and two assists.
After the buzzer
Conacher’s goal may have rattled the Jets briefly, considering their outings vs. Washington earlier in the week, but they steadied themselves.
"I thought it unnerved us a little bit for awhile, but we started to do some things that reminded me of a couple of weeks ago when we were getting some wins when we were really managing the puck, putting it in the right areas and doing some really good things," Noel said.