WINNIPEG – The MTS Centre is where visiting team's win streaks go to die and where the Winnipeg Jets continue to fortify their playoff push.
The Eastern Conference playoff race is beginning round into shape as the NHL calendar marches toward April. A 2-1 win for the Winnipeg Jets against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at the MTS Centre will allow the Jets to remain a player in that race for the moment, despite a dreadful January skid that bled into February.
"We looked tired coming off a road trip," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "I didn't think we gave them a whole ton, but we did some things, and it's a big win for us."
After a 2-4-0 road trip in which the Jets (25-24-6) managed only goals over the six games, Winnipeg's quickly fading playoffs hopes received a boost with the two points against the Leafs (28-20-6), who saw their three-game win streak came to a halt.
The Leafs, on a 5-0-1 roll before meeting the Jets, are the fourth team to see an undefeated streak of five or more games end at the MTS Centre with a loss to the Jets this season and remain stranded where they began the night – stuck at 62 points. With a game at Philadelphia on Thursday, the Leafs are now three points behind New Jersey and Pittsburgh, but just one point ahead of eighth-place Ottawa.
Toronto lost for the second time this season in the MTS Centre, where being back in front of their home crowd continues to serve the Jets well.
"It was nice to get home," said Jets center Bryan Little, who broke a 1-1 tie in the second period with his game-winning strike. "It feels like we've been gone for a long time."
But the Jets will not be home for long. A two-game Jets road trip begins on Thursday night against the Washington Capitals. Winning the Southeast Division outright might be the Jets' most direct path to an Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Jets now sit four points behind the Capitals, who wrestled away the Southeast Division lead with a 4-0 win against the visiting Florida Panthers on Tuesday. Ottawa's loss at home to St. Louis allowed the Jets to creep to within five points of the Senators as well.
"Tomorrow is another day," winning goaltender Ondrej Pavelec said, "and we go to Washington and Pittsburgh. It's going to be a battle again."
Along with a goal from Chris Thorburn and Little's second-period tally, the Jets limited the Leafs to 13 shots over the opening 40 minutes. Pavelec finished his evening with a 17-save performance that included a stop on Matt Lombardi's in-close chance with just over four minutes remaining that helped to close out the Leafs.
"All season long we have stayed positive," Pavelec said of a team that had to return to Winnipeg after a poor performance against the Canadiens. "We know it's a hard League, never an easy game. We tried to stay positive no matter what."
Phil Kessel picked up his 30th goal of the season -- the fourth straight campaign he's accomplished that feat -- to account for the Leafs' only goal. Toronto goaltender Jonas Gustavsson made his first start in four games and stopped 27 Winnipeg shots.
The Leafs hung an early deficit on the Jets when Kessel scooted past Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien before slicing across the high slot and snapping a heavy shot that fooled Pavelec at 11:06. The Jets have allowed the first goal in six of their last seven games.
But Winnipeg responded with the club's first first-period goal since Jan. 19 when Zach Bogosian reached Thorburn with a outlet pass that sent the burly winger tearing down the left boards. Thorburn then cut hard past Luke Schenn on his off-wing and backhanded a shot that beat Gustavsson's glove hand on the far corner. After having gone without a goal over 59 games dating back to March 2011 and not scoring his first goal of the season until last week, Thorburn now has two goals in five games.
"It was nice to see him score again," Noel said of Thorburn. "He endured enough for the first 50 games, so it's nice to see him get some success. That line has been really reliable for us and has played well."|
After the Leafs' early goal, Thorburn also skated on that Winnipeg checking line with Jim Slater and Tanner Glass that matched the Leafs' top line featuring Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak that combined for just three shots.
"It's really rewarding as a line," Thorburn said of scoring and bottling up the Kessel line. "It's definitely a challenge. Tonight was a case where they scored early on us and as a line we said, 'We've got to do better.'" So, we did that."
The Leafs' work inside the offensive zone did not please coach Ron Wilson.
"They did a good job in their zone," Wilson said of the Jets, "but we didn't direct enough pucks toward the net. We were trying to make an extra play, an extra pass and things like that. We just didn't scramble them up enough."
The Jets hit the two-goal mark in regulation time for the first time since Jan. 21 when Blake Wheeler drove through the left circle to the Toronto net, where Gustavsson poked away the puck. But Little crashed the slot, beat Lombardi to the puck and shoved home the rebound before Gustavsson could scramble back into position.
"(Great) play by Wheeler," Little said. "He was driving the net wide and, you know, once he uses his speed and size and takes it to the net like that, it's hard to stop him. For me, all I had to do was go to the net and tap it into the empty net, so it was pretty easy for me."