It was the kind of game the Winnipeg Jets have come to hope for from forward Blake Wheeler after they signed the 27-year-old Minnesota native to a six-year, $33.6 million dollar contract in the offseason.
Wheeler scored twice in a 6-4 win over Central Division foe, Minnesota Wild Friday night at the MTS Centre, including the game winning goal 10:40 in to the final period. The goal was a result of a resilient effort from Wheeler in front of the net that ended with the top-line winger without a lid and stick by the time the puck crossed the line.
“He can play that way,” head coach Claude Noel said following the win. “When he skates, when he’s involved physically and he’s playing the right way I think you can see some of the good things he can do.”
Took a beating
If it wasn’t his best game this season, it was certainly his toughest. A number of times Wheeler stood planted in front of the opposing net and each time it came with a healthy dose of crosschecks.
Wheeler didn’t shy away from the corners. He finished his checks and drove wide all night long on one of the league’s best defenders in Ryan Suter.
“He’s really had a nose for the net,” opined captain Andrew Ladd of his line mate. “He’s found a way to get his game to another level which we need. He’s been hot and we’re going to need him to stay hot going forward.”
Wheeler has collected 12 points in as many games in December. No one on the Jets has scored more points this month. It’s been a process for Wheeler, who has battled with both adversity and success all season.
“A lot of our guys have done a lot of soul searching,” started Wheeler. “Losing hockey games isn’t a whole lot of fun. It’s not a whole lot of fun to be productive in losses. You want to produce toward wins.
“For myself, it’s been kind of a weird month. It’s been a lot of times looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what can you do differently to help this team and there’s been a lot of up and downs, peaks and valleys.
“It’s been disappointing overall because we’re trying to win games. I think everyone is pushing that direction and when you’re not doing that every night you’ve got to look and see what you can do differently.”
‘Hung to dry’
It was a short night for Jets tender, Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec was pulled just 7:04 in to the first period after allowing three goals on six shots. As he made his way to the dressing room, the 26-year-old Czech could be seen smashing his stick to smithereens in the aisle backstage.
But for Noel, the move to pull Pavelec was not a message for his goalie, but for the players in front of him.
“It was clearly a message not to Ondrej, it was clearly a message to our group,” Noel said. “We got to get on top of this thing. We can’t let our guy hang out to dry. We’ve done that with Ondrej. We did it in Edmonton. We did it in the first seven minutes [tonight].
“He’s battled his tail off for the last three years,” added Wheeler to Pavelec’s defence. “There’s been some times where Pav has stolen games where maybe we shouldn’t have won. Times where it’s probably not been a whole lot of fun to be our goalie.
“Last game in Edmonton was definitely a case of that and I think there’s instances like that where our group needs to look in the mirror and be like ‘what the heck are we doing, this is one of our teammates’. We hung him out to dry. There’s no two ways about it.”
Noel stays loyal…for now
“This is something clearly we can’t do,” said Noel. “Our team has played well in front of him. He’s played very well behind them so he’s our No.1 goalie. Clearly, he’s the guy that’s going to play.”
Noel has remained loyal to Pavelec all season despite some questionable performances, especially of late. The move could be to protect what confidence remains in Pavelec at the moment, but it goes very little in instilling any from the home crowd hungry for backup Al Montoya.
Montoya replaced Pavelec to a thunderous cheer from the home crowd. He went on to strengthen that bond with a 22 save performance for the win, coming up big on a number of Wild chances in close. With the win, Montoya improves to 6-2-1.
“It’s my job, right?” said Montoya when asked how prepared he was to see game action. “It’s my job to be here, be ready to support this team and be ready to go in at any given time. I like to say I’ve seen it all, been put in every situation but you know it’s about staying on your toes and knowing what got me here, so you just go in there and you’re ready to play.”
Worth noting: Evander Kane recorded eight shots on net to pass Dustin Byfuglien for the team-high. Kane has 140 shots in 32 games – the ninth most in the NHL.
Up next: The Jets now hit the road for a Sunday night matchup against the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are coming off a 7-2 butt whooping at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night so you can bet they’ll be ready to go. The Jets fell to the Avalanche 4-3 in a shootout in their most recent meeting back on Dec. 12.
First star – Blake Wheeler, WPG
The Jets top-line winger scored two goals on the night including the game winner midway through the third period. Wheeler also finished with four shots, three hits and was a plus-2 in 16:18 of ice time.
Second star – Jacob Trouba, WPG
He stepped up when his team needed him. With Zach Bogosian, Mark Stuart and Grant Clitsome all on the shelf with injuries, the 19-year-old filled in nicely alongside Tobias Enstrom. Trouba collected an assist and finished an impressive plus-4 in 24:49 of ice time.
Third star – Jason Pominville, MIN
The Wild right-winger collected two assists in the game but finished a minus-2 on the night.