TORONTO — Since the Winnipeg Jets really jumped into the fray about 10 days ago, the race in the NHL’s Eastern Conference has taken on new intrigue.
You aren’t imagining this — the latest plot twist sees the Jets as the third seed this morning.
Their wild 5-4 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night at Air Canada Centre vaulted them over the Carolina Hurricanes and into the lead of the Southeast Division with 32 points.
The Jets coughed up a 4-1 second-period lead and eventually took the game on a goal by Zach Bogosian in the tenth round of the shootout, the longest of the NHL season.
"A good game for Hockey Night in Canada, exciting from that standpoint but a little bit too exciting for our liking," said Jets coach Claude Noel, his team 10-3-1 in its last 14 games.
"But we’re happy we got the win. The shootout was a little nerve-racking."
Winnipeg, Toronto and New Jersey are all at 32 points.
The Leafs and Devils share sixth today, while Carolina is now eighth in the standings after losing to Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Joffrey Lupul’s early goal for Toronto — he’s just back from missing 25 games with a broken arm — pushed the Leafs to the lead after just 1:32, then the rowdiness began again.
The teams had a physical battle Tuesday in Winnipeg and it resumed when Toronto’s Colton Orr and Winnipeg’s Chris Thorburn squared off again. Four minutes later, Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian was jumping in to scrap with Korbinian Holzer, who had wanted to fight with Evander Kane.
"I thought it was good," Noel said. "I think the fact that he didn’t think it was a fair trade-off with Evander Kane, he thought we’re not going to take liberties like this."
The Jets jumped to the attack almost from the faceoff to start the period. It took them five minutes to cash a goal, and within a 10-minute span, they had four.
James Wright had the first, converting a rush pass from Kyle Wellwood, then Antti Miettinen scored for the second game in a row, batting a puck out of the air near the net. Blake Wheeler added two more, 3:26 apart, and the Jets were ahead by three goals and ACC fans were starting to jeer
Toronto rallied late, getting a faceoff win goal by Nikolai Kulemin and turnover conversion by Lupul within 25 seconds to get it within one by the intermission.
"The only real disappointing thing was how in control we had that game," Wheeler said. "But that’s hockey, it’s a game of momentum and they made a couple of nice plays going into the third."
Phil Kessel scored on a wide rush at 5:50. It took the Jets nearly 10 minutes to get a shot in the period.
The overtime produced chances both ways, the best for Toronto’s Nazem Kadri and Winnipeg’s Kane.
The shootout saw Wheeler score with Winnipeg’s first shot, Tyler Bozak with Toronto’s second then Jets’ Ondrej Pavelec and Toronto reliever James Reimer shut the door. Winnipeg, shooting second in each round, had eight straight shots to win the game and finally did it with Bogosian’s glove-side snapper.
After the buzzer
Winners of three straight, the Jets are right back it in Ottawa today (4 p.m., TSNJets, TSN1290). Ottawa has 34 points, the Jets 32.
"Now the goal is to move onto the next game," Wheeler said after the long shootout.
"Tomorrow’s two points are just as important, probably more important. It’s less about where we are now and more where we want to go. You’ve got to scratch and claw your way to be higher up in those standings, so that you’re not just teetering on the edge every game."