TAMPA, FLA — It happened in a flash... a break from the hockey gods at one end, a nifty pass and a deft finish at the other. And in those few seconds the mood on the Winnipeg Jets’ long flight home from Florida late Saturday must have turned from funereal to festive.
The Jets salvaged their up-and-down six-game road trip through the Eastern Conference with a 2-1 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night, a result that gave them eight of a possible 12 points on the trek and improved their record to 14-13-4.
"We have a long flight home," began Jets’ goaltender Al Montoya, who kicked out 28 of 29 shots for the win, "and I’ll tell you what, going home with this on our shoulders is going to feel really good."
SALVAGING VS. SIFTING THROUGH THE WRECKAGE
How fine is the line between winning and losing in the NHL? The Jets gave up the equalizer Saturday night with .2 seconds remaining in the second period and then had Alex Killorn clang one off the post in the first minute of OT.
Seconds later Blake Wheeler is feeding Mark Scheifele for the winner, turning the road trip from 3-2-1 to 4-2. And given this team’s occasional fragility, heading home with just one point from the final two games in Florida would had this squad tighter than the bolts on a new bridge heading into Tuesday’s home date against the St. Louis Blues.
"Three and three would not have felt very good, especially being up 1-0, but I don’t know we expected it to be a 1-0 game after 60 minutes," said Jets coach Claude Noel. "Certainly 4-2 is a lot more comforting for us. It would have been disappointing to go home 3-3. For us, that would have been tough.
"We played hard, we played smart, we were going. We were doing a lot of good things. We were following the game plan. We had a little more trouble in our D-zone in the second period. That and getting pucks behind their defencemen and compounding that was the long change. That was one of the problems. We didn’t get pucks deep, we’d be out there longer and we were in our D-zone longer, therefore we’re giving up more things. But for the most part, we played a good, solid game."
THE LATE DRAMATICS
Wheeler, who was outstanding with a goal and an assist, watched as a media throng went straight to Scheifele after the game. Devin Setoguchi, sitting beside Wheeler, quipped: ‘Wheels get a goal and an apple (assist) and you guys go straight to the rookie? No respect."
"It was a great pass by Wheels. I owe it all to him," said Scheifele, speaking loud enough for Wheeler to overhear. "He was able to find my stick."
Wheeler was not one of the three stars chosen by the Tampa media Saturday — they selected Montoya, Lightning netminder Anders Lindback and defenceman Radko Gudas — but was arguably the best Jet with his two points, four shots, hit and blocked shot.
And the fact that it came after an awful performance by the Jets’ No. 1 line in the loss to Florida was significant for the visitors.
"Sometimes the puck starts to find you a little bit," said Wheeler with a shrug. "Sometimes you go a stretch where it seems like it’s staying away from you and you start to lose faith a little bit. But that was big. I think our focus was in the right place tonight and for me it was about getting into those scoring areas and have puts go off me and sometimes they go in the net."
And, in many ways, it could be said the inconsistency in Wheeler’s game this season simply mirrors that of the team. When they are engaged and paying attention to detail, they look like a playoff-calibre squad. And when he/they don’t...
"We were kind of in a tough spot coming on the road," said Wheeler. "We weren’t really playing that well and we’re starting to get some good games. The wins, we played really well in and the losses we played not-so well in. There’s definitely a black and white with our team: when we play well we give ourselves a chance to win every night and when we don’t we don’t give ourselves a chance.
"It’s a good learning tool for our group to realize if we bring that consistency every night we’re going to start ourselves off right every game."