Jets stay in thick of playoff race with win over Caps
Ondrej Pavelec and Mark Stuart put their best forward of the win
A lot can change in two years.
Exactly two years ago the Jets sat atop the Southeast Division on the verge of their first playoff berth in just the second season in Winnipeg since moving north from Atlanta.
The Washington Capitals were in town for a rare two-games-in-two-nights series at the MTS Centre with the Jets holding a nine-point cushion on their division rival. With just one month remaining on the schedule, a pair of wins for the Jets would make it next to impossible for the Capitals to catch them in the standings.
But even with all that incentive for the home side, it was Washington who took full advantage, winning both games by a combined score of 10-1. After the first game — a 4–0 win for the Capitals — former Jets head coach Claude Noel struggled to find an answer to explain his team’s listless effort.
"We need to play better, that would be the first thing," he said, prompting next a sound byte that will forever go down as one of his trademark phrases during his three seasons in Winnipeg.
“They're playing chess, we're playing checkers."
Those two games would have a domino effect as the Jets struggles continued. Winnipeg dropped five of their next seven games, eventually missing out on the playoffs by four points while the Capitals moved on to claim the division title and a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
That was then. And this is now.
Fast-forward to Saturday night and the circumstances are eerily similar: The Jets, riding a three game win-streak, once again found themselves against a Washington team in the way of their pursuit for that first post season berth.
Only this time it was the Jets who were able to rise to the occasion, earning a 3-0 win over the Capitals to extend their win steak to four games and remain in possession of the final wild card spot in the west.
“Building on these wins, getting these points this time of year, it’s huge for us,” said Jets forward Drew Stafford, who extended his point streak to five games with two assists on the night.
“We’re desperate for the points.”
Stuart plays hero
It was also a much different outcome for Jets defenceman Mark Stuart, who two years ago was forced to leave the game after finding himself on the receiving end of a heavy hit from Capitals’ forward Alex Ovechkin that sidelined him for six games.
This time around Stuart played the hero, opening the scoring for the Jets midway through the first period in what ended up being the game-winning goal.
“It felt totally good. It’s not really part of my game but it feels nice to contribute offensively and help us [win],” said Stuart, who has just 23 goals in 558 career games in the NHL.
What was even more impressive than the offence sparked by Stuart was the defensive effort displayed by him and the rest of Jets blue-liners. It’s no easy task stopping a Capitals team led by Ovechkin, one of the most prolific scorers in the league.
Ovechkin, the NHL’s top goal-scorer with 47 this season, looked dangerous every time he stepped on the ice. But the Jets were able to weather his attack by plugging up the shooting lanes and eliminating his space. It was just the third time Ovechkin has been held pointless against Winnipeg — a stretch of 14 games.
Shutting out an opponent can do a lot for the confidence of a team’s defence, but when it’s against one of the league’s powerhouse offences like the Capitals, who also have the NHL’s best power play unit, it carries a little extra weight.
“Anytime you can [shutout another team], it’s huge,” said Stuart. “As a defenceman you want that for your goaltender, especially given the way he played. He deserves that.”
Pav stands on head
It was the fourth consecutive start in net for Ondrej Pavelec, who once again stood on his head, making 28 saves to record his second shutout of the season. It’s been a tough road for Pavelec this year, having to battle for time in the crease with fellow goalie Michael Hutchinson but his patience has paid off.
With some impressive games over the past week that also included wins over Tampa Bay, San Jose and St. Louis, Pavelec has started to reaffirm himself as the No.1 guy.
But don’t expect him to be celebrating any time soon.
Pavelec knows what’s at stake and with only 10 games left on the schedule he understands the importance of focusing one game at a time.
“Of course I feel good but it’s one game,” said Pavelec.
“Tomorrow is another day. We have to stay focused and be ready [for the next one].”
The next one for the Jets is Monday night against the lowly Edmonton Oilers in the first of back-to-back road games that ends with a tilt against Vancouver on Tuesday.