It was a night of euphoria and desperation, of angst and, ultimately for the Winnipeg Jets, relief and pure joy.
Chasing a coveted spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Jets served up a little bit of everything to their loyal faithful Tuesday night — heart rates were spiking and sinking all evening — but regrouped after spitting up a 3-1 third-period lead for a 4-3 shootout win that is absolutely, positively critical at this stage of the season.
The club’s fourth straight win — a season high — improves the Jets to 22-19-2 and gives them 46 points, the same as the New York Rangers, who have a game in hand but fell Tuesday to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The result also allows the Jets to keep the Washington Capitals, Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders — all teams they are chasing in this hunt and all of whom won on Tuesday — within sight as the final sprint toward the post-season continues.
"You don’t want to give up a 3-1 lead in the third period, but they have some guys... the top goal scorer in the NHL (Steven Stamkos) and a guy that can hurt you, and we maybe played a little too passive instead of staying on our toes and playing in their end," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd. "But, at the end of the day, we had some good goals in the shootout and so we’ll take it and move on.
"We’ve been saying all along all we can control is what we’re doing. We got our two points and we have to be happy with that and move on to Thursday."
The four-day break between games — the Jets’ last action was Thursday’s 7-2 spanking of Florida — may have been a concern when the puck dropped, but quickly abates 83 seconds into the game when Ladd beats Lightning netminder Ben Bishop with a softy between the legs.
The Bolts would answer 10 minutes later when Martin St. Louis gobbles up a Ron Hainsey giveaway to notch the score at 1-1, but the Jets get the solid start they were so desperately seeking.
The Jets continue an ongoing trend, outscoring the Lightning two-zip in the middle frame when Blake Wheeler shows great patience coming across the slot before beating Bishop from an acute angle. Ladd did all the grunt work along the boards before feeding his linemate, then the captain scores on the power play with a perfect screen shot.
And here’s the trend: Winnipeg has now outscored their opponents 12-0 in the second periods of their four-game win streak and now has 49 goals in the middle frame this year — second only to Washington’s 51.
Disaster for the Jets, who sit back and let the Bolts re-energize on goals by Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Stamkos as Tampa Bay outshoots Winnipeg 10-8 and steals the momentum.
"Sometimes when a team grabs the momentum from you like that, you just got to reassess things," said Wheeler. "It was still a 3-3 game and points are at a premium right now. There was no reason to panic. You can’t panic and start doing things that are out of character for our team. It starts with just hanging on to get the one point and then try to win a game in overtime or the shootout. Good teams are able to do that, they’re able to refocus when things are going a little south."
The extra frame solves nothing and then the Jets get goals from Mike Santorelli and Ladd in the shootout while Pavelec stones the Bolts for the crucial extra point.
After the buzzer
The Jets’ top line of Ladd, Little and Wheeler combined for three goals and seven points while Ladd seals the deal in the shootout.