With 11 games that remained on the schedule, it was supposed to be the easy one.
The Carolina Hurricanes were all but out of the playoffs heading in to Saturday’s game against the Jets; 10 points shy of the final wild card spot in the East. Simply put, they were playing for fun.
Not to mention the Jets have had a fair amount of success against the Hurricanes. In 11 games since the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg, the Jets have won eight, including the only match this season: a 2-1 win Feb. 4 in Carolina.
Add the fact the Jets were playing for their playoff lives, and it should have been a slam-dunk.
There was just one problem.
Ward stones Jets
“Cam Ward is the story in this hockey game,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice after the game. “He was the best player on the ice.”
That could very well be the understatement of the year.
Ward, 30, was lights out from the opening faceoff. He pulled in a 34-save performance with a majority of his shots coming at point-blank range.
Just ask Jets’ forward Bryan Little, who was robbed twice in the opening period, including a wide open net that somehow was denied by the paddle of Ward.
“That’s probably the biggest save anyone’s made on me in my career,” said Little, who would eventually solve Ward with a goal 1:29 in to the third period.
“It was just one of those where I have an empty net, I’m shooting it right in the middle and he got a stick on it. He played a great game tonight, and he really helped them pull out the win.”
As for the other end of the ice, Jets’ goalie Al Montoya, who started in his fourth straight game with Pavelec still out with injury, was quick to shoulder the blame of the loss.
“I didn’t make the saves I needed to make and at the end of the day, that cost us the game,” said a dejected Montoya, who finished with 29 saves in the loss.
He was referring to two goals in particular.
On Carolina’s first marker, a bobbled puck behind the net by Montoya ended on the stick of Eric Staal who made no mistake. Then there was the third goal, also the result of a miscommunication between goalie and defence.
But no one can blame Montoya for the loss. He too made a few great saves in the game, including a breakaway by Jeff Skinner late in the third period with the game still within a goal.
“I don’t think you ever do that to your goaltender,” said Maurice when asked if he agreed with his goalie’s assessment. “If a guy is clearly the reason that you’re in the hole, I’ll get him out of the net before that happens.
“They get to this level thinking they should stop everything. He will feel that because he’s got a front row seat to the way the guy at the other end is playing so it’s magnified, but I don’t think that’s fair.”
But Maurice and company knows there’s no time to dwell on the past. Tomorrow is a new day.
“This one is going to hurt, for a day, at least,” said Maurice. “Until we get a chance to fix it in our next game.”
Tough road ahead
The Jets now hit the road for their toughest stretch of the season: a five-game roadie starting in Dallas, sandwiched with three stops in California (San Jose, L.A. and Anaheim) before wrapping up with a game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
“We have to have a good road trip,” claimed Little. “I think after this trip, we’ll have a good idea what’s going to happen with our season. They’re all going to be tough games, but we’re looking forward. We’ve got to put this [loss] behind us and just focus on winning as many games on that trip as we can.”
Good plan, cause after watching Saturday, there’s no such thing as easy ones.
Jim Slater notched his first of the season, scoring the game’s opening goal with a nice tip off the shot of defenceman Mark Stuart. It was the first game for Slater since the birth of his daughter earlier this week.
Zach Bogosian left with an upper body injury in the second period and did not return. Maurice confirmed it’s the same injury that kept him out Wednesday’s game but that it wasn’t serious.
Former Jets defenceman, Ron Hainsey, made his first appearance in Winnipeg since he signed a one-year deal with Carolina in the offseason. Hainsey played two seasons in Winnipeg, and was the subject of heavy criticism before his departure due to his high salary ($8 million over the past two seasons for the Jets) and lack of production.
First star – Cam Ward, CAR
He was a brick wall in net from start to finish and the main reason his team left with two points. Ward stopped 34 of 36 shots aimed his way, with a number of stops sure to be on the NHL highlight reel for a very long time.
Second star – Bryan Little, WPG
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Little was robbed twice in the first period only to come back and score a big goal in the third. He finished a plus-1 in 21:29 of ice.
Third star – Andrej Sekera, CAR
Talk about eating up minutes on the blue line. Sekera finished with two assists and five shots in a game-high 24:55 of ice time.