The Winnipeg Jets needed a big game, in a big way, and they got one Sunday night as they trounced the Dallas Stars 7-2 in front of a packed MTS Centre to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The win snapped a six-game losing skid for Winnipeg and marked just their third victory in the last 10 games.
This all coming after a stretch where the Jets appeared to be unstoppable, boasting an 11-3-1 run that began mid-January and opened the door to the real possibility of making the post season.
That’s all come crumbling down, however, with the Jets earning just two of a possible 12 points in their last six games.
“It’s been a tough road for us these last six so I think on our side we had a team that was obviously highly motivated and pissed off; all the right things to be ready to go,” said Jets forward Blake Wheeler, who finished the game tying a franchise record with four assists.
“We like the way we’ve been playing for the most part, especially for the last three or four games we’ve actually played really well and it just hasn’t worked out for us. To get the results is definitely gratifying.”
Lucky number seven
The result: seven goals, including six straight after falling behind 2-1 before the midway mark of the first period.
It was the most goals by the Jets this season and it came against the team they’re chasing for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
“Against a highly skilled team like Dallas you can’t give them chances,” said Olli Jokinen, whose night consisted of a goal and two assists.
“We were defending good and we were able to keep the puck in their zone. I think that was one of the reasons we were able to score some goals. Playing the right way, you have to be able to do that night-in and night-out in this league.”
Head coach Paul Maurice said despite the team’s latest struggles, he’s seen progress at all ends of the ice and likes the direction his team has headed.
“We are definitely, in the last three [games] especially, getting closer to the way it’s supposed to look,” he said.
“Now, you’re not going to score seven [goals] every night, obviously, but it’s supposed to look like the offensive zone and some of the defensive zone, tonight.”
Battle between the pipes
Speaking of the defensive zone, overshadowed in the win was the play of backup Al Montoya who. if it wasn’t for a save in the first period, the game could quite easily have had a different fate.
Midway through the first period, with the Stars holding a 2-1 lead, Dallas forward Erik Cole sprung in all alone. Cole made a nice fake before shooting five-hole but a well-positioned Montoya shut the door with a nice stick save.
The Jets would tie the game shortly after with a goal from Michael Frolik.
“That goes back to experience I guess,” said Montoya of the save.
With Ondrej Pavelec sidelined with an injury, Montoya was given the nod between the pipes. He finished with a 25-save performance in the win.
“Being put in this situation several times, you got a choice: you either go out there and make a big save or you let the mental part of the game bother you. I’m a battler and I like to think my teammates think the same of me.”
Indeed they do. After all, it’s not everyday you have a backup goalie with the kind of experience like Montoya. Not to mention he’s having a good year, posting an 11-5-3 record off the bench.
“He’s there for us everyday and he works hard,” said Jokinen. “Besides being a tough guy in this league, that’s the second toughest job — to be a backup goalie.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for those guys. They work hard and every time they get a chance to play they want to play well and they want to battle 'cause they want to keep that net.”
Montoya, 29, wouldn’t argue against more seven-goal games but he credited the team’s resilience and determination for the win.
“This was part of the game plan,” he said. “We expected to come in here and win. Our crowd was behind us all night and the players stuck together.”
‘We want Buff’
There was no doubting who the fan favourite was on the night.
Dustin Byfuglien continued his stellar play of late, finishing the game with two goals and an assist. He was also one of three players to finish a plus-3 on the night.
With the two goals, Byfuglien has scored six in his last five games. He’s been the model of consistency for the team and a quiet leader.
“If you put [the last few games] together he’s been our best player,” said Maurice.
“He’s such an unusual man. To have hands, and you saw some speed there too, and to have the ability to control the play. He’s the perfect example of the way you want your team to focus the game.”
With how well he’s been playing, there is no surprise that many worried after Byfuglien left the game midway through the third period with a lower-body injury. The MTS crowd, known for their thunderous chants, attempted to lobby his return by collectively screaming, “We want Buff!”
Although the move went unsuccessful, Maurice made it clear it was precautionary reasons for his absence and that he would be a player for the Jets Monday night when they take on the St. Louis Blues.
The Jets are now four points shy of the Stars for the final playoff spot with Dallas holding two games in hand.
With 13 games left on the schedule, the chance of making the postseason remains slim, but after Sunday’s performance, perhaps a strong push by the Jets is just around the corner.
“It was a good start to hopefully something good here,” said Wheeler. “We’ve got to rally and string a bunch together now.”
First: Blake Wheeler, WPG
For a guy that likes to score goals, he sure doesn’t mind passing the puck. Wheeler finished with four assists, tying a franchise record for most in a game. He finished a plus-3 in 15:50 of ice time.
Second: Dustin Byfuglien, WPG
Defenceman or forward? Doesn’t matter. Byfuglien scored one from the point and another from in front of the net, making it six goals in his last five games. He finished a plus-3 in 16:00 of ice time.
Third: Olli Jokinen, WPG
The seasoned NHL veteran showed off the hands of a young superstar when he undressed Stars’ goalie, Tim Thomas, 29 seconds into the second period. Jokinen also added two assists and was a plus-3 in 16:13 of ice time.