By: Adam Wazny | Saturday, January 26
Winnipeg Jets' Evander Kane (9) scores on Pittsburgh Penguins' goaltender Tomas Vokoun (92) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg on Friday, January 25, 2013. The Canadian Press/John Woods
The simple blueprint for success is starting to take shape for the Winnipeg Jets: The best players have to be the best players every night.
For the second straight game that plan proved to be a winner for the Jets, as they erased a two-goal deficit in the first period and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 at a booming MTS Centre Friday night. Winnipeg (2-1-1) has won two straight games, picking up points in their last three after a season opening loss versus Ottawa.
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, one of those 'best players' in question, stood tall in the Winnipeg net, stopping 33 of 35 shots -- including a number of big stops in the second period when the home side needed him to keep the game close.
Pavelec was especially huge against Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's most valuable player from a year ago. While Sidney Crosby made his first visit to Winnipeg count with a pair of goals to jump the visitors out to an early advantage, Malkin couldn't beat Pavelec for that third goal -- a hold that proved to be the difference.
The best players often get the warmest love, too. The 'Pah-vee, pah-vee' chant as his shoulders grew came more from an appreciation of his sense of moment in the Jets net than via a sense of relief from the excitable crowd.
Pavelec's best saves: a post-to-post slide across the net to thwart a Malkin one-timer and a flurry of stops when the Russian superstar followed in his own rebound but couldn't beat the out-stretched right pad of the Czech goaltender. The score was 2-1 for the Pens at that point; another goal and another two-goal deficit probably would have been too much for the Jets to counter.
While Pavelec kept the balance of the game out of his net, the Jets forwards -- specifically handful of Jets forwards you'd place in the 'best' category -- picked up right where they left off. Just as they did against Washington earlier in the week, Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler each registered a goal and an assist to lead the Winnipeg attack once again.
And don't forget about Dustin Byfuglien. Winnipeg's top blue-liner also scored and chipped in with an assist, proving once again that as he goes so do the Jets.
That the 'best players' rise up to be counted is a familiar refrain in pro sport, but sometimes carried within that popular premise, a different, unseen storyline starts to emerge. Friday, after his troops took two of three periods against the Penguins, Jets head coach Claude Noel singled out his leadership group -- specifically his captain (Ladd) -- for keeping the Winnipeg room on point in the wake of a dizzying first period that left many dressed in Jets blue spinning.
Noel used phrases like 'maturity' and 'handling the game' when addressing the media in the post-game reflection, crediting not only the play of his 'best players' but their response to some early adversity against a club widely considered a Stanley Cup favourite. Despite being down 2-0 and watching the likes of Crosby control the pace of play, Winnipeg stuck with its game plan and kept with their purpose, pressuring the Penguins into defensive mistakes -- three of those miscues resulting in goals.
What does Friday's result mean for the Jets? That remains to be seen.
If they come out flat against the New York Islanders Sunday night (7 p.m., MTS Centre), then it's back to the drawing board. If the Jets can summon a similar intensity and follow the lines of this familiar blueprint once again, they could be onto something here.