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Low on fuel, but still flying

Jets come through with must-win to keep hopes alive

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They'd denied following their morning skate earlier it was a must-win.

But nobody was denying it Wednesday night.

With their backs to the wall, the Winnipeg Jets kept their slim playoff hopes on life-support at the MTS Centre as winger Blake Wheeler got his first goal in 10 games at the most opportune of times -- at 1:42 of overtime, giving his team a gritty and critical 5-4 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

 

"This was huge. This was a must-win," said Jets goaltender Al Montoya, who won the second of his last three starts in relief of injured Ondrej Pavelec.

"They all are, but tonight -- day by day -- this was one we needed to have and we did have. I can't say enough about the guys who came to play tonight."

Topping that list was Wheeler, who had two assists during regulation time, when Jets defenceman Paul Postma fed him a pass in the Avs zone and Wheeler did the rest -- weaving his way through traffic seemingly forever before finally firing from a sharp angle into a wide-open net.

"It felt like an eternity," said Wheeler. "I was looking for a shot and it just wasn't open. I couldn't figure out where the opening was going to be. And finally, the goalie was out of the net in the corner and I was able to find the hole...

"This has been a tough year. It's been one thing after another," Wheeler continued.

"And that's one thing I'd say about our group -- we're definitely seasoned at this point and there's nothing that we can't deal with. And we're starting to rally around that in our room."

 

So how'd that go?

The Jets fell behind 1-0 after just 20 seconds when Avs centre Ryan O'Reilly banked a shot in off Jets centre Bryan Little, but Winnipeg came right back less than three minutes later when captain Andrew Ladd hit the corner to beat Avs goalie Reto Berra for his first of two on the night.

Eric Tangradi put Winnipeg up 2-1 midway through the first period, giving Winnipeg the first of three leads they would hold -- and squander -- on this night.

Evander Kane, with his second in three games, was the Jets' other goal scorer, while Gabe Landeskog, Nick Holden and Cody McLeod had the other Colorado goals -- all of it setting the stage for Wheeler's overtime heroics.

 

About those scratches

 

With Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian going down during the pre-game warmup with an upper-body injury, the Jets had a lot of very pricey talent watching from the press box.

In addition to Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien, Jim Slater and Pavelec also couldn't go last night with lower-body injuries. And then there were the longer-term guys in Jets sick bay -- Mark Scheifele and Chris Thorburn.

All together the Jets were missing six regulars.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Bogosian came up lame in the warmup, but he's expected to play Saturday.

Maurice said he was impressed with the way his team kept coming despite all the adversity.

"That tone was set early," said Maurice, "that you just keep slugging in this game and do whatever you have to do to come out on top."

 

So now what?

The Jets' win was their second in three games and got Winnipeg within four points of Phoenix for the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference, although the Coyotes have two games in hand.

The Jets get one of the league's softer touches in the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday at the MTS Centre before embarking on a very challenging western road swing that will see them play five games in nine nights against, in succession, the Stars, Sharks, Kings, Ducks and Coyotes.

That's a steep climb, but at least the motor is still running.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 D1

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