WINNIPEG – Before the Winnipeg Jets hit the road in January, they had one last opportunity to exercise their power play in front of their fans at the MTS Centre. The Toronto Maple Leafs provided the perfect opposition to do so.
The Jets struck twice on six man-advantage chances to take a 3-2 New Year's Eve decision in front of another raucous home crowd and close out their busy home slate before a January that will see them away from their building for nine of 13 games.
"Once again, Winnipeg proves it's a great place to play," said Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian. "It was crazy out there."
Penalty trouble also stalled the Leafs late in the game. With Toronto down a goal and threatening in the final five minutes, Tim Connolly's offensive-zone penalty helped mitigate any chance of a rally for the Leafs, who have now dropped three consecutive games to end their four-game road swing. Toronto now sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
The Jets (19-14-5) played 12 of 14 games at home December, going 9-2-1 to fuel their climb up the Eastern Conference standings, where they now sit in seventh place -- just four points behind the Florida Panthers in the Southeast Division. Just 9-11-4 and stuck in 13th place in the Eastern Conference when December began, the Jets have climbed into the thick of the playoff race this month. The Jets' 10-3-1 December record now stands as the best month in franchise history.
"We're in a good place," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "We wanted to win today, because we wanted to be in a good place, and I think that we are. It'll be good to get the day off and get a couple days of practice in. I'm going to smile for you, and then we're going to wish you a Happy New Year. There's a lot of joy in my life today."
Only three clubs had earned fewer power-play opportunities than the Jets' 120 entering the game. Against the Leafs' NHL-worst penalty kill, the Jets had plenty of time and opportunity to work on a power that is 10th-best in the NHL on home ice.
"We wanted to get on the power play," Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey said. "When a team is struggling like that, you know it and you've got to get on the power play as much as you can."
Goals from Bogosian, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler carried the Winnipeg offense, while checking-line winger Antti Miettinen picked up his first two assists as a Jet. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec handed in yet another stout performance, stopping 21 shots in holding an opponent to two or fewer goals for the eighth time in his 11 December starts.
"We were moving our feet well," Wheeler said. "We drew a lot of penalties, and we made them pay on the power play. That what you have to do in these tight games."
The Jets unleashed a pair of power-play goals – and another strike four seconds after a Toronto penalty expired – in a second-period span of 7:59 that erased the Leafs' 1-0 first-intermission lead and left Toronto coach Ron Wilson exasperated with his club's penalty kill.
"We kicked two pucks in our own net," Wilson said. "Defensemen are supposed to box out. One [goal] went off Luke [Schenn's] knee when he should have gotten out of the way, not screening the goalie or trying to block that one."
"We put ourselves in that position," Wilson said. "We should know better. We have some guys are making the same mistakes and screening the goalie. We're screening the goalie better than the opposition is."
Clarke MacArthur and Phil Kessel picked up goals for the Leafs (18-15-5), while goaltender James Reimer stopped 32 of 35 shots in his NHL debut in his home province. But Winnipeg used Toronto's 7:35 of second-period shorthanded time to stall the Leafs for much of the period and own a 28-12 shots advantage after 40 minutes.
"We didn't kill a couple of those penalties off where we should have," Wilson said of the Leafs' second period. "They were getting a lot of momentum off their power play, and we didn't have the time, especially in the second period, to get anything going."