All it took was a flip of the calender, a big dose of adversity and a meeting with an old nemesis to shake the Winnipeg Jets from a prolonged slumber.
March rolled in like a lion Friday night at Bell MTS Place as the Jets rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Nashville Predators 5-3. It was a big result on several levels, including the fact Winnipeg leapfrogs Nashville back into first place in the Central Division.
But more than that, it was as close to a complete, 60-minute effort the Jets have produced in recent weeks, over a quality opponent to boot.
"The positivity around here is real contagious. I think they know how good they are. And when things don’t go their way, they stick to their structure. We stick to our structure. It just shows what type of team we are. Well-coached, top to bottom, good players on either line. Fun to be a part of," said newcomer Kevin Hayes, who had a goal and two assists in his second game with the Jets after being acquired from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline.
"It was a tough game, they’re a big rival here. To play that in game two is exciting, We’re in that final stretch here where we need to figure out what kind of team we’re going to be going into the playoffs," said Hayes.
Winnipeg, which began the night with just three wins in the last 11 games (3-6-2), snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 38-22-4. Nashville is now 37-25-5.
"It’s a good sign. The end of February’s been rough to us. To show that type of confidence to stay with our game plan, even when it wasn’t going our way, that was awesome," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who broke a 2-2 tie with just under six minutes left in the third period. He also had two assists in the game.
"It just hasn’t been easy for us. I think Nashville brings out the best in us. They bring that level of excitement because you can’t take any time off. Thirty seconds, one shift, five minutes, even if you’re up three or four goals, they come back on teams. You just can’t take your foot off the gas. I think that’s a very good team for us to play right now."
Not to be overshadowed was goalie Laurent Brossoit, who got an unexpected start with Connor Hellebuyck out with the flu. Brossoit made 35 saves, including a handful that earned him standing ovations from the crowd and repeated chants of his name.
"It’s huge. These games especially are the ones you really want to get up for. A big opportunity for me. You never want to see a teammate sick, but it gave me an opportunity and it was just really nice to get back into the win column. I thought everyone came to play," said Brossoit.
Brossoit got off to a red-hot start with the Jets, going 10-0-1 in his first 11 starts, but he had struggled in his previous four, going 0-3-1 with a 3.75 goal-against average and .882 save percentage. Like all of his teammates Friday night, he picked a fine time to get back on track as he notched his first win since Jan. 15.
"A win is always a win, But against a team like that and in that fashion and the standings looking the way they are, it definitely makes that win feel even better," said Brossoit.
There was a sense of urgency in the air right out of the gate, including a much louder pre-game "Go Jets Go" chant from a crowd that seemed to recognize the local lads could use an extra boost. And there was a real physical edge, as we’ve come to expect since their epic second-round playoff series last spring.
Patrik Laine finished an early check on P.K. Subban, drawing a big roar. Matt Irwin just missed what could have been a devastating open-ice hit on Jack Roslovic, Brandon Tanev crushed Kyle Turris with a hit, and then linemate Adam Lowry tried to run Mikael Granlund through the boards seconds later.
Cameras even caught new Nashville winger Wayne Simmonds mouthing something along the words of "I’ll (expletive) find you," to one of either Tanev or Lowry, or perhaps both.
Nashville opened the scoring with just under five minutes left in the first period, courtesy of an egregious Jacob Trouba giveaway in his own end. His blind pass into the slot was pounced on by Viktor Arvidsson, who ripped it past Brossoit. That’s the kind of mistake a somewhat fragile team can’t afford, especially when a pair of other top defencemen in Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are out with injuries.
Winnipeg looked to have tied the game a few minutes later as Trouba atoned for his error, stole a puck off Filip Forsberg and fired a shot on Pekka Rinne, who gave up a juicy rebound that Kyle Connor buried. But Nashville challenged that the Jets were offside, and replays confirmed Trouba had, in fact, brought it in illegally.
Nashville made it 2-0 midway through the second on the power play. Mathieu Perreault tripped up Subban in the offensive zone, and Subban quickly made the Jets pay by firing a shot through a crowd just 11 seconds later.
Everything that could have seemingly gone wrong was going wrong for the Jets, who were down a pair of goals despite playing a strong game to that point. But then came the rally, which might got down as the biggest of the season, to date.
Mark Scheifele got things going when he scored on the power play with just over four minutes left in the second period, equalling his career-high with his 32nd goal of the season. Then Connor scored one that counted with 99 seconds left in the period, as he did some great work to keep a puck alive in the neutral zone, then buried a pass from Nikolaj Ehlers.
With time winding down in the third period and the game still deadlocked, Wheeler scored his biggest of the year at 14:09 to put the Jets ahead for the first time. The captain had a huge celebration which included rubbing the ice and jumping into the glass as he was mobbed by teammates.
"It’s getting towards the end of the year. Time to ramp up the enthusiasm a little bit, it’s OK to have a bit of fun when you’re on the ice. Especially when things aren’t going your way. That state of mind, to try and go out and enjoy what we’re doing and bring that enthusiasm, bring some of that energy out on to the ice," said Wheeler.
Tyler Myers seemingly iced it at 18:14 with an empty-netter that made it 4-2, but his goal became the game-winner when Mattias Ekholm’s point shot got through a screen with exactly one minute to play. Hayes then truly sealed it as he scored his first as a Jet into another empty net at 19:28.
The Jets now hit the road for a four-game eastern swing that begins Sunday in Columbus and includes stops in Tampa Bay, Carolina and Washington.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Friday, March 1, 2019 at 11:29 PM CST: full write-thru, tweaks headline, adds photos