WINNIPEG – To complete their month-long journey to the top of the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins had to overcome their overnight trek to Winnipeg first.
However, awaiting the Bruins, who arrived in town late after Monday's win at Pittsburgh, were the well-rested Winnipeg Jets, who had not played since Saturday night and are firmly ensconced in the midst of a run of 12 of 14 games at home this month.
Bryan Little's goal 4:50 into the third period broke open a tie game and sent the Jets on to a 2-1 win against the Bruins before another MTS Centre sellout crowd of 15,004. Boston lost in regulation time for the first time since Oct. 29 at Montreal and had its 14-0-1 streak snapped.
"I thought we played a really solid 60-minute game," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "[Goaltender Ondrej] Pavelec was outstanding when he had to be outstanding. We're playing smart, we're following the details and we're getting the job done."
The 12-11-4 Jets, who hold a winning record for the first time this season, have tied a season-high with three consecutive wins and won six of their last seven contests at home. The win allowed the Jets to slip into ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
"It gives us some confidence," Little said. "Boston has been playing unbelievable lately. It seems like they can't lose. We managed it well, played a good third period and Pavelec shut the door for us."
A Boston win would have planted the 17-8-1 Bruins atop the Eastern Conference after a 12-0-1 march through November spilled over into this month and left the Bruins with 29 of a possible 30 points in the stretch.
Bruins coach Claude Julien told his team afterward that he was happy with the effort.
"I thought it was a well-played game from both sides," Julien said. "Both goaltenders were outstanding. It's one of those nights where it was tough to score, and you have to turn the page and move on."
The teams were playing a 1-1 game early in the third period when a David Krejci hit on Mark Stuart along the Winnipeg end boards and subsequent skirmish left the teams playing 4-on-4. The Jets went right to work when Little won a neutral-zone face-off and immediately dashed up ice with the puck on a 2-on-1 break before flicking a low shot past Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, notching his sixth goal in his last 10 games.
"That's probably the loudest we've heard it to date," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said of the MTS Centre.
Boston brought a daunting collection of statistical mastery into Winnipeg that has fueled its ascent through the Eastern Conference standings following October's 3-7-0 post-Stanley Cup record. The Bruins' 15-game run without a regulation loss saw them outscore opponents 66-27, and Boston's League-leading plus-36 goal differential (88-52) this season was 17 goals better than second-ranked Detroit in that category entering the game.
But the Jets met the Bruins enjoying a 6-2-1 run of their own in which they had been averaging 3.56 goals per game. Further complicating matters for the Bruins, Julien made leading scorer Tyler Seguin a healthy scratch after the Bruins’ leading scorer overslept a team breakfast and meeting earlier in the day.
The Jets also used Ladd's first-period goal to knock off the Bruins and advance their record when scoring first to 9-3-2. Pavelec started for the 18th time in a run of 19 Jets games and turned in a 39-save performance on 40 Boston shots.
"It's important for us," Pavelec said. "We know we can play that way. That's huge for our future to know we can beat those teams."
Before meeting the Jets, Boston had assembled a 12-4-1 mark in games in which it had taken 30 or more shots, but Pavelec fended off a a 17-shot second period and a furious Boston attack late in the third period. With Rask off for a sixth skater. Pavelec scrambled to stop Milan Lucic's right-circle laser with 37.8 seconds to play.
Boston, which received a goal from Shawn Thornton, endured a late arrival that meant that Rask drew his second start in the club's past three games after a 21-save performance in a 4-1 victory against Toronto this past Saturday night.
The loss spoiled Rask's stout 33-save outing. With the Bruins trailing 1-0 early in the third period, Rask held off the Jets when Carl Klingberg stripped Zdeno Chara of the puck and moved in on the Boston net, but could not add to the Winnipeg lead. On the next shift, Thornton planted himself in front of the Winnipeg net and poked Daniel Paille's right-corner feed past Pavelec at 3:16.
Afterward, Thornton shrugged off the Bruins' schedule as a factor.
"That's all mental as far as I'm concerned," Thornton said. "I don't think back-to-back is an excuse, to tell the truth."
After a slow start, it was Ladd who woke up the Winnipeg offense. Ladd, mired in a four-game scoring drought, cruised up the left boards before cutting into the circle and flinging a shot that climbed high on Rask to handcuff the goaltender with 1:38 to goal in the period. The goal came on the third of three shots that Ladd directed at Rask in a span of 1:48.
Only the Philadelphia Flyers had been more offensively productive in first period this season than had the Jets entering the contest. Thirty-one of the 76 goals that the Jets have scored this season have been first-period strikes.
Boston used the second period to generate sustained offensive pressure and pumped 17 shots at Pavelec. The Jets burned off Boston’s second power play moments before Pavelec stuffed two crease chances from Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand early in the second period. On the next Boston shift, a pass through the slot to Krejci left Pavelec prone on the ice, but he could not lift a shot over the goaltender.
The Bruins enjoy a relatively light December schedule and will fly home on Wednesday before meeting the Florida Panthers on Thursday.
"To be honest with you, you get used to winning," Julien said. "I know the players in there hated it, and so did I, as did the coaching staff. Hopefully we hate it enough that we want to bounce back in the next game and win another one."