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Pens beat Jets 4-1

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A home-heavy schedule has provided the Winnipeg Jets opportunity for traction.

The Jets certainly haven’t wasted it — 7-2-1 in the last 10 at the MTS Centre — but Friday’s tell-tale 4-1 defeat against the Pittsburgh Penguins left an empty feeling because it was within reach for so long.

"Can we muster up 20 minutes to play?" Jets coach Claude Noel said, voicing the critical question about the game which was 1-1 through 40 minutes. "Obviously we weren’t able to. But I would rather look at the big picture.

"To me it was a typical three (games) in four nights game. I’m not going to sit here and criticize my team. I think we’ve had a good month."

The Jets have progressed, going into their two-day Christmas break two games above .500 at 16-14-5. Ninth spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference is by no means the end of the world and 37 points is just two points off the playoff line.

"We made some strides as a group," said Jets left-winger Tanner Glass. "The last little bit we left some points on the table we could have snagged. But we grew as a group. With a young team, we’re trying to make strides, learn about ourselves and learn about playing the right way and I think we learned a lot in this homestand."

The run of favourable schedule is not over.

It’s 7-4-1 so far in the string of 13 of 15 at home, with games to come next week in Denver, then at home against the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Friday’s third period, though, will take some of the stripes off the candy canes.

The Penguins forced the issue right off the bat and James Neal scored just 22 seconds in.

Then goals by Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis just 40 seconds apart before the five-minute mark ended matters rather quickly.

"I think the first one was, first shift of the third," said Glass. "That’s a tough one to give up."

Added defenceman Zach Bogosian: "It’s obviously frustrating. We were right there with them until the start of the third."

Pittsburgh’s third win in a row pushed it to nine games above .500 at 20-11-4.

The well-executed road gameplan accomplished its goal, leaving goalie Marc Andre Fleury with not a lot to do.

Fleury even had a great sleight-of-hand in the second period with the game tied, simply pushing his net off the posts with the Jets teeing up a Grade A scoring opportunity.

To the officials, it was like it never even happened.

The same could not be said early in the third, when Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien knocked into Pens defenceman Ben Lovejoy, who bowled over Fleury, who again knocked his net off.

This one was a penalty, interference to Byfuglien, and Stall’s goal was the result.

"They can score quick," Bogosian said. "They have a lot of firepower. If you take Buff’s penalty, and I don’t even know if that’s a penalty, and they score on that. If we pop one in, it’s a pretty close game. Say what you want but we didn’t play the way we should have in the third."

The Jets would probably like to have the first period back, too, so it’s probably a major case of of ifs and buts and candies and nuts ....

But certainly unlike their tidy 4-0 win over Montreal on Thursday, the Jets were not opportunistic in the first, when they more scoring chances than their five shots on goal.

The tale of their period was Jim Slater’s shorthanded breakaway just five minutes into the game. His high shot clanged off the crossbar and out of play.

Slater also had a glorious chance later in the period when Fleury messed up an icing call but recovered in the nick of time to make a save.

And then the Penguins grabbed the lead on Joe Vitale’s goal.

"I think we’ve found our game," Jets winger Evander Kane said, sounding somewhat encouraged. "We know what makes us successful now and if we bring our best game, we’re going to win most nights. \We still have a few games left in December and we need to capitalize on those."


Game Preview:

Whichever it is, unexpected or overdue, Blake Wheeler’s game is mattering to the Winnipeg Jets.

The speedy right-winger had an impact night Thursday, collected two goals and an assist to help put a dagger in the Montreal Canadiens.

Tonight, the Jets are hoping for more of the same when the Pittsburgh Penguins are at the MTS Centre for a 7:30 p.m. start (TSN Jets, TSN 1290).

“He really skated,” Jets coach Claude Noel said of Wheeler. “When he skates like this, he has the puck way more. He has patience on the puck, he’s evasive.

“He was really dangerous. That line’s had to make some adjustments without (Bryan) Little and I think (Alex) Burmistrov’s been good and solid. When Blake skates and has the puck, he’s a real factor.

“You watch him, he’s a hard guy to stop. He’s got some size to him. I’ve liked him because he’s got more bite to his game. That’s something he’s wanted to do. What can I say? You really notice him in games like this when he skates like this. He’s a hard guy to handle.”

With just two assists in the first eight games, and not a goal until Game 19 of the season, Wheeler had more than his share of early troubles.

Which makes his recent production, 16 points in the last 16 games starting with his first goal, and a total of five goals and 24 points on the season, more than pleasing to his teammates.

“It’s nice to see things finally going in for him,” captain Andrew Ladd said. “For him, when he’s skating he’s so tough to handle. He’s such a big body and he’s one of those guys who can beat guys with his speed. That was kind of the turning point for him. Obviously he’s been putting up a lot of assists and just hasn’t been able to find the net before.

“Right now I think he’s skating a lot better. Noticeably. It seems like he’s found another gear. To see him, he takes the puck end to end sometimes and they can’t handle him. He’s got such a long reach with that speed, it’s tough to handle.”

The Jets will be without Little again tonight against the 19-11-4 Penguins, the last game before a short Christmas break.

“We’re really gaining some confidence at home and we really enjoy being in the race and at that line,” Noel said, his team tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference as of this morning. “It’ll be our third game in four nights so we’re going to have to take short shifts and play smart. Pittsburgh will be rested, ready to go. (The Pens haven’t played since Tuesday at home.)

“It’ll be a real mental test for us.”


Updated on Friday, December 23, 2011 at 8:07 PM CST: Adds first goal

8:17 PM: Adds first period summary

8:51 PM: Adds Jets goal

10:15 PM: Updates with game score

11:06 PM: Updates with quotes

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