Jets claw out OT win
Pionk scores winner in Nashville
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NASHVILLE – The Winnipeg Jets, in a fight for their playoff lives, clawed out a critical two points with a 3-2 overtime win over the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena Saturday afternoon.
Defenceman Neal Pionk sealed the game 55 seconds into the extra period, shovelling a puck into an open net for his ninth of the season. As the puck crossed the goal line, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from Winnipeg’s bench in what was a rollercoaster affair between two Central Division rivals who despise one another.
Nikolaj Ehlers and Adam Lowry also scored for the Jets, who improved to 39-28-3 and snapped a two-game losing streak following defeats to Boston and Carolina.
“It was a great feeling. We played well enough to win that in regulation but give their goaltender credit – another goalie we made look pretty good,” Jets head coach Rick Bowness said of Juuse Saros. “He was outstanding, but we were pretty happy with our overall game, team game, for 60 minutes. We were very confident that if we keep doing what we’re doing, the forecheck was working, we had some good looks off the rush. Finally, the puck went in, and it was a great shot by Nik and we went from there.” The Predators, who got goals from Winnipeg native Cody Glass and Luke Evangelista, salvaged a point in the loss, dropping their record to 34-25-8. Saros finished with 31 saves, while Connor Hellebuyck countered with 18.
The Jets wrap up a two-game road trip with a tilt against the Blues in St. Louis Sunday in another pivotal game. With just 12 games remaining in the regular season, every game is critical in determining the final results of a wild-card race between the Jets and a couple of teams in the Western Conference, including the Predators.
Before we look too far ahead, let’s dig a little deeper into Saturday’s win.
1) The Jets must have been extremely frustrated through the first 40 minutes of this one. Despite dominating the first period only to generate very few quality scoring chances – they outshot the Predators 13-5 in the frame – then generating several opportunities in the second but spoiling most of them, Winnipeg trailed 1-0 heading into the third.
The opening goal came from Glass, who jumped on a bouncing puck to beat Hellebuyck for his 10th of the season just 5:26 into the game. It was just Nashville’s second shot.
Credit to the Predators for their efforts to step in front of pucks, clear the front of the net and keep several shots to the outside. Saros was his typical all-star self, which didn’t help matters, but the Jets made him look even better by trying to get too pretty in tight, resulting in a handful of glorious opportunities that didn’t result in a shot on net.
“We’re spending a lot of time in their zone and the shots weren’t getting through. I think they had eight shot blocks in the first period,” Bowness said. “In the second period, you hit those 2-on-1 and 3-on-1 and you don’t get a shot on net, like that was a little frustrating; we spent more time in their zone that we didn’t generate much from. The guys just stayed with it, and we kept saying to just keep putting pucks on the net and see what happens.”
2) The Jets were the better team for much of the night, but the win wasn’t for the faint of heart. It required bouncing back from being down 1-0 and 2-1.
Bowness shuffled his top two forward lines late in the second period, swapping the two left wingers. Ehlers moved to a trio with Mark Scheifele and Nino Niederreiter, and Kyle Connor played alongside Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who returned to the lineup after missing the last five games with an upper-body injury.
Ehlers broke Saros’ shutout bid 6:17 into the third period, using Predators defenceman Jeremy Lauzon as a screen and wiring a slap shot high glove for his eighth of the season and second in the last three games.
The lead was short-lived, as the Predators struck 34 seconds later, with 21-year-old Luke Evangelista, playing in just his ninth NHL game, putting the home side back up.
“(Ehlers’) goal really gave us a belief. Not that we didn’t believe in ourselves, but how we played through the first two periods, I thought we were playing a tremendous game,” said Lowry, who would tie it 2-2 with just more than three minutes remaining in the third. “We didn’t really give them a whole lot of chances. Obviously there were a couple of odd-man rushes, and their first goal was a tip that was batted out of the air, so it’s not like we had a lot of breakdowns. We know Saros, over there, is a tremendous goalie and it’s about getting traffic and making his life difficult. We kept talking about getting guys to the net and getting bodies in front of him.”
3) Lowry would do just that on the game-tying goal, in a brilliant display of grit and determination. The play began with Lowry, while on his knees, winning a face-off back to Morrissey before driving to the net and banging home the rebound.
“I had a tough night in the circle against Boston, so I actually had a conversation with (former Jets assistant coach) Todd Woodcroft and got back to some of the basics and some of the stuff he had taught me over the years,” Lowry said. “To be rewarded after making those changes, that was huge. Our line gives up that kind of deflating goal after we tie it up and in these tight games you don’t want to be the reason you lose, so it was huge for us to get one back.”
Bowness has been preaching at his his players to score more “greasy” goals and Lowry epitomized that sentiment on his eighth marker of the season.
Pionk did the same on the goal in OT, driving the net and pouncing on a rebound off a shot by Dubois. These are the types of goals the Jets have to rely on, especially with a power play that is struggling mightily, with Winnipeg goalless on four man-advantages.
The Jets have just one goal on 12 power plays over their past four games and only three on 24 power plays over their last seven.
“That’s the million-dollar question right now. We just don’t shoot the puck enough, we really don’t,” said Bowness, with a frustrated chuckle, when asked about fixing the PP. “Either they’re doing a great job of blocking shots or we’re too hesitant to shoot and it starts with that. It’s as simple as that. Just get in more of a shooting mentality.”
4) There’s a couple ways to look at this game. The Jets entered the day with the weight of world on their shoulders, desperate for a win after collecting just four victories in their previous 15 games.
There was also a ton of added pressure by the fact the Predators are one of two threats to their playoff aspirations, the other club being the Calgary Flames. The Jets currently occupy the second wild card spot in the West, five points up on the Predators and Flames, who have three and one game in hand, respectively.
A loss would have been devastating and would have continued the narrative that the Jets just aren’t good enough or mentally strong enough late in the season, when the intensity ramps up.
But that also completely ignores that, based on paper, the Jets should have won handily against a Predators club that were sellers at the trade deadline and were missing a couple key pieces, including an early exit from all-star defenceman Roman Josi. Consider: Nashville shipped out forwards Tanner Jeannot and Niederreiter – traded to the Jets, no less – and defenceman Mattias Ekholm, while forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen were on the shelf with injuries.
Morrisseyhad a counter to that argument.
“They’re competing really hard. They don’t give you much. We saw that earlier in the year when we were here. And what they do give you, a lot of times they’re good in front of the net and Saros makes those saves. We, for sure, were ready for this game, knowing how they’ve been playing and seeing the teams that they’ve been beating lately. They’re playing hard and so are we,” he said. “Pressure’s all a matter of perspective. Regardless of the outcome of this game, there’s still quite a bit of hockey left to play. Obviously, you’d love to come in and get two points and give them none. That’s the reality at this time of year but I’d rather play in games that mean something.
“If you’re playing in games that don’t mean something at this time of year, likely you’re out of it unless you’re one of the few teams that are so far ahead, like a Boston. So, playing meaningful games that have more on the line is why you work hard for as long as we do in the off-season and, in the season, go through the grind to be in big moments.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.