TAMPA, Fla. — With fire in their bellies, the Winnipeg Jets played a game unlike any other this season.
And in the eventual 6-5 shootout loss to the reeling Tampa Bay Lighting, the Jets claimed it might have been their best point of the season.
Rallying from down 3-0 at the end of the first period, the Jets surged back to actually take a 5-4 lead late in the third period.
In the five-minute overtime, they had four point-blank chances to win the game but couldn’t get it to go against Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and then Steven Stamkos ended a five-round shootout with the winning goal on a wild night.
The Jets played aggressively in the first but some colossal errors paved the way for three Tampa Bay goals in the final five minutes of the frame.
At 3-1 late in the second, the game nearly boiled over after a couple of checks by Tampa Bay’s Anton Stralman.
First he clipped Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers with his leg on what appeared to be a late check. Seconds later, after Jets centre Bryan Little was knocked off balance by Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman in the neutral zone, Stralman stepped up and drilled Little in the head, causing an eruption on the already upset Winnipeg bench.
The ensuing vitriol from the visitors cost them an extra bench minor, then Jets coach Paul Maurice came to the bench for the third period with a tirade on the officials, at which point referee Francois St. Laurent seemed quite happy to throw him out of the game.
They rallied on the ejection with four straight third-period goals.
“It was huge the point after the way that game went,” said Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec. “Kind of a wild game. Offensive game. Both teams had skills, and it wasn’t easy to play that game. It was really hot in there. And huge point for us.”
Little didn’t return to the game after Stralman’s predatory hit, but he was seen after the contest in his street clothes outside the Jets locker-room.
There was no immediate word as to his health or availability for Saturday’s game in Sunrise, Fla., against the Florida Panthers.
A clean hit?
Referees St. Laurent and Dan O’Rourke ruled Stralman’s two hits legal. Stralman was penalized just two minutes after Blake Wheeler challenged him and got four minutes for roughing.
Maurice launched into a tirade after the incidents and received a minor penalty for his criticisms.
"It’s because you work with these guys every day, and you care about them," he said after the game. "You care about their wives and their families, and Bryan Little’s getting his neck X-rayed, and I seem to be considerably more concerned about the result of that hit than anyone else."
Asked for a reaction to St. Laurent chuckling/smiling about the ejection, Maurice added this: "You’re not doing me any favours here. I understand you’ve got a job to do, but I think that would then have been consistent with their overall demeanour regarding the whole incident. That’s fair."
The coach made a point to say how pumped he was about how his team came back after a dull effort Tuesday in Carolina.
"I liked all 60 minutes," he said. "We played like men, played hard, played for their teammates, played disciplined in a time where you worry it might not be, that it might get right off the rails. I think we showed a tremendous amount of discipline. I think we’re a lot more disciplined team than we get credit for.
"We outplayed them and out-chanced them, and I pushed them hard yesterday and challenged them and they responded, and I’m really, really proud of the way they played. They played like men, and now you’ve got a belief and a hope with a young team that they’ll just keep getting better if they play like that."
The bad news
The bad news for the Jets on this night was in the result.
Their overtime point and Nashville’s 2-0 win over Boston left Winnipeg a full 10 points off the playoff line in the Western conference.