Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets beat Avalanche 4-1

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DENVER — It was a strange sight to hit refresh on NHL.com’s standings page and finally see the Winnipeg Jets posted above the playoff border in the Eastern Conference.

For the first time all season the Jets are in a playoff position and now will begin to embark on the challenge of staying above the line where the top eight teams in the conference reside.

The Jets pounded the Colorado Avalanche 4-1 at the Pepsi Centre to vault into eighth place in the East with 39 points.

"It means a lot to us to finally get above the line. For us it’s good, but our focus will be winning the next game at home, and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully we can stay above the line. That’s going to be the key for us," said Jets coach Claude Noel.

The position is precarious, with the Ottawa Senators sitting in ninth, but also with 39 points. Winnipeg has a game in hand on the Sens and that gives the Jets the tiebreaker and a view from above the playoff line for the first time since the season began.

Just ahead of the Jets and also with 39 points are the New Jersey Devils while the Toronto Maple Leafs hold down sixth spot with 40 points. The Jets will get the chance to try and soften the Leafs record when they meet up Saturday night at MTS Centre.

The Jets can thank goalie Ondrej Pavelec for the win — hell that can be said about Winnipeg goaltending any night they claim a win — as he was his usual brilliant self, stopping 32 of 33 shots.

Pavelec was strong early allowing his team to charge out to a 4-0 lead and then battled down the stretch to make sure the margin stood up to give the Jets their 17th win of the season and fifth on the road.

"Our defencemen, with some major pressure, handled themselves pretty well. Pavelec made some huge saves, and we got some timely goals. I was happy that we finally got a shot in the first period after about the eight-minute mark," said Noel. "We knew they played (Monday night) and travelled, so getting the first goal really helped us. We managed the puck fairly well. The way Pavelec was playing, we recognized it might’ve been enough to win the game."

The road win is huge for Winnipeg as they’ve been outstanding at home of late, taking seven wins in their last 10 openings at home but had lost seven of their last eight away from Winnipeg coming into the match.

"It’s been so long since we’ve really been on the road for any length of time. I don’t think our team really looks at our road record as of late and thinks, ‘Well, this is what we are.’ We have a better handle on our identity, and we have a way better handle on how we played," said Noel.

Left winger Evander Kane snapped a cold streak with a pair of goals after going without one for seven straight games. Tim Stapleton and Jim Slater added the other Winnipeg markers.

"We stayed out of the box which was key because they have a real good power play. A solid game all around for us," said Slater. "The altitude affects guys. But we had oxygen on the bench and once you get past the first period you get your second wind. It’s a rough place to come into if you haven’t been here in a while but we found a way to get it done."

The road record is now 5-8-4 for Winnipeg, while they are 12-6-1 at home.

Kane scored his first of the night taking a pass from Blake Wheeler and zipping a wrist shot past Avs goalie Jean-Sebastien Gigeure.

Stapleton then popped in a power-play goal for his fifth of the season.

Kane made it 3-0 before the second period ended as he missed on a breakaway but stuck with it and cashed in from the slot off a pass from Chris Thorburn.

Slater scored the fourth goal deep in the third as he took a feed from Tanner Glass and scored as he fell to the ice.

Kevin Porter broke Pavelec’s bid for a shutout, as he scored late in the third.

Game preview

If you've already looked ahead, you know January's flight schedule is a busy one.

So for now, tonight's game in Denver serves as merely a blueprint for Winnipeg's road build; a foundation for some much-needed success away from the MTS Centre. The Jets, holders of a 4-8-4 road record that situates them near the bottom of the NHL in that category, make just their second road trip in December -- a one-game jaunt into the mountains to take on the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center (8 p.m., TSN Jets, TSN 1290).

"We have to start winning some games on the road," Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel said after practice Monday, fully aware that his club has tasted victory just four times in 16 away games this season. "If you're going to be a playoff-contending team -- which we hope to be -- you have to start getting to .500 on the road. That's got to be our next goal."

Pouring the concrete for happy travels won't be an easy task for the road-challenged Jets. Tonight's opponent, the Avalanche (18-17-1), has won eight straight at home -- a run that serves as the second longest active streak in the NHL. Thanks to a laughable post-Christmas schedule, Colorado had the unenviable task of playing Monday night (in Minnesota), meaning the Avalanche energy levels for the Jets could be as thin as the mountain air come game time tonight.

According to reports in Denver, here's why the club should be shopping for a new travel agent:

-- Avalanche players were up at 5 a.m. or so for a charter that left three hours later.

-- Two-hour flight to Minneapolis, a chance to catch a quick nap and a bit to eat before heading down to the rink for a 5 p.m. Central (4 p.m. Mountain) puck drop against the Wild.

-- Finally, a late flight back home and in bed by hopefully 2 a.m. this morning.

"Energy-wise, they probably won't be at peak levels but we have to take advantage of that," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said.

Winnipeg's upper hand in this situation isn't as firm as it appears, though. Perhaps serving as the balance in the well-rested Jets waiting in Denver for the road-weary Avalanche is the high altitude -- an often overlooked component to playing in Colorado.

The Jets have been at home on the flat prairie (Winnipeg is 268 metres above sea level) for a month, so heading to the higher plateaus of Denver (1.6-kilometres above sea level) could make it difficult for some players to catch their breath between shifts.

A gasp here, a wheeze there: Just like that the coach might need to call his time out during the warm-up.

"You have to deal with altitude there, and it could be a real issue," Noel said. "If you get stuck in long shifts, you could really have a hard time. You have to go 30-40 second shifts and get the change because if you get stuck your recovery is really tough. You really hit the wall. It's an advantage to them, because they're used to it."

Nik Antropov, a veteran who has spent his entire career in the Eastern Conference, said the thin air is a legitimate concern for players who may be making only their first or second trip to the Mile High City.

"Not a great place to start off after Christmas," he said. "If you play there every year, once or twice, it's OK, but for the guys who are going to play (there) the first couple times, it will be noticeable."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2011 C2

History

Updated on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 8:39 PM CST: updates with first goal

9:02 PM: Adds second goal

9:24 PM: Adds third goal

9:56 PM: Adds fourth goal

10:10 PM: Adds Avalanche goal

10:23 PM: Adds final score

10:50 PM: Adds game ender

11:14 PM: Updates with details throughout

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