It was the kind of game you’d expect to see following a 19-day absence from NHL game action.
The game was sloppy, disorganized and pretty boring at times. But after all was said and done, the Jets finished their first game back from the Olympic break on a high note — a 3-2 shootout win over a Phoenix Coyotes team ahead of them in the standings and in the fight for that final playoff spot in the West.
“You know what, believe it or not it, it was better than I thought I was going to see. It really was,” said head coach Paul Maurice, who improved to 10-3-1 behind the Jets’ bench.
“I’m not trying to say it was a great game but it was a better game than I thought we were going to see out there today.”
‘A real slugfest’
Maurice’s evaluation was based on what he’d witnessed over the last two days since the NHL reopened for business Tuesday night. The rust, he felt, was inevitable.
“I think you look around the league and yesterday and today you’ve seen some strange scores and strange games,” he said. “That one was a real slugfest for the puck all night. Even handling it, doing anything basic [was difficult].”
Many viewed this game as a must win for the Jets. With the Coyotes holding a two-point cushion and two games in hand, surrendering even a single point would be too costly in the standings.
But don’t tell forward Blake Wheeler that.
“We will never, for the rest of this season, have any disappointment about getting two points,” said Wheeler, who scored his team-high 23rd goal in the win. “They’re clean to us, two points.”
When informed what his winger had said moments earlier, a reporter asked Maurice if he felt the same about giving up a lone point this late in the year. The reporter couldn’t even finish the question before getting his answer.
“I feel absolutely the same way,” started Maurice. “That’s the way our games are going to look now and if you can get two points on teams that are scratching and crawling at this point, absolutely.”
“P” for positive
It was the kind of responses members of the media have come to expect from a Jets locker room still very fragile and new to winning.
With 21 games left in the regular season, there’s no time to dwell on the negative. For Wheeler, Maurice and co., it’s the positives that matter.
“We got areas we can be better in, areas we can improve in and that’s a positive,” said Wheeler. “It’s a positive to maybe not play your “A” game but still get two points. It’s not going to be the last time we have to do that this year.”
But it’s not something they can budget on, either. The race to the playoffs is a tight one, with five teams separated by just four points for the eighth and final spot. The Jets earn the win but the reward is minor. With Dallas, Nashville and Phoenix all earning points Thursday, a win for Winnipeg just means staying on pace.
“I think the last quarter of the season is where you lay it all on the line regardless of who did what,” said Wheeler.
“It’s an all out sprint. There’s no time to think about being tired. You got to lay it all on the line. If you’re going to be a playoff team, which we want to be, there should be a lot more hard hockey ahead of us.”
Jim Slater returned to action after missing 52 games with a lower body injury.
He finished the game with 11 total shifts spread across 5:44 of ice time. He was an even plus-minus, and spent some time on both the power play and penalty kill.
Evander Kane also returned to the lineup after missing the last six games with an infection on his hand. Kane was a boost to the second line alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, despite finishing the game a minus-1 in over 20 minutes of ice.
Coyotes’ defenceman and former Winnipegger Michael Stone made his return home for the second time this season. Stone finished the game with two shots, four hits, and was a minus-1 in 16:41 of ice time.
It was a moment in the game that raised a number of eyebrows: Mark Scheifele was addressed a minor penalty for “playing with an illegal stick” – his own. The call came after Dustin Byfuglien retrieved the rookie’s twig from the ice and threw it to him. I guess you can’t do that. Now you know.
First – Blake Wheeler, WPG
Fresh off the Olympics, Wheeler added to his team lead in goals, finishing off a nice offensive rush to score his 23rd of the year.
Second – Oliver Ekman-Larsson, PHX
He opened the scoring for the Coyotes, sneaking a shot off the crossbar and in for his ninth of the season. He also ate up minutes, finishing the game with 29:18 of ice time.
Third – Ondrej Pavelec, WPG
He made 36 saves in the win including three highlight reel stops in extra time. He also stopped four of five shooters in the shootout to earn his 19th win of the season.