WINNIPEG -- The Eastern Conference playoff race is not waiting for any team, and stragglers will be left behind.
But the Winnipeg Jets will be sticking around for at least a little while longer after beginning a crucial eight-game homestand and beating the Boston Bruins 4-2 at the MTS Centre on Friday night. The win marked the first time the Jets have won the second half of a back-to-back set this season after going 0-9-0 on the back half.
"I thought we played with a lot of heart," said Jets coach Claude Noel, whose team won 4-3 in a shootout at Minnesota on Thursday. "It was nice to see us play that way in back-to-back games."
The victory, combined with Washington's 2-1 win at Florida, moved the Jets (28-26-2) within three points of the first-place Panthers in the Southeast Division. With Toronto idle, they also crept to within two points of the eighth-place Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference race. The Jets have played three more games than Florida and two more than the Capitals.
Two third-period goals by Bryan Little in a span of 2:03 broke open a 2-2 game and led the Jets to their second win over the Boston on MTS Centre ice this season. Goals by Alexander Burmistrov and Blake Wheeler, who also assisted on both tallies by Little, provided the rest of the offense for the Jets.
"Hopefully it's one of those confident-boosting games where we can get on a roll now," Little said. "It seems like we win a couple and lose a few lately, and we can't really do that anymore. We have to get points and hopefully this is kind of the start of this homestand where we can put a couple of games together."
Little's two-goal effort was his third such game this season; he also went 15-for-20 in the faceoff circle. Wheeler, who has six points in his last four contests, now has a team-leading four three-point nights this season. Ondrej Pavelec had another solid night in goal with 31 saves.
"When you are going to win games like this," Noel said, "you are going to have to get timely goals and timely saves, and I think that's what we got."
The Bruins (35-19-2) failed for the seventh time over the past five weeks to win back-to-back games. The last time the Bruins won in consecutive games was at home in mid-January, and they have not won consecutive road games since a mid-December sweep at Ottawa and Philadelphia.
"[Inconsistency is] something that is not our style usually, but lately it has been a lot," said Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, who is 0-4-1 in his past five games.
Rask managed to stop only 21 of the 25 shots he saw from the Jets. Jordan Caron and David Krejci tallied for the Bruins, who are in the midst of a season-high six-game road trip that continues Sunday afternoon in Minnesota.
But Bruins coach Claude Julien would not lay all of the blame on his goaltender.
"I think we've seen Tuukka better, and, you know, guys, everybody has to be better," Julien said. "The goaltender is the easiest one to criticize, because he's the last guy standing there. So, yeah, our goalies can be better, as the rest of the team can be."
Patrice Bergeron stressed that the Bruins must retool their game quickly.
"It's way too much up-and-down right now," Bergeron said. "It's not even close to the effort that we need right now. We're working hard, but we're not working smart. It hurts us so much when we get away from our game and away from our system."
"The bottom line is that we got to find a way," Bergeron added. "We need some answers and we've got to get back to our game."
The Jets opened the scoring 1:59 into the second period when Mark Stuart fired a long cross-ice pass that hit Burmistrov at the Boston blue line. Burmistrov motored into the Boston zone before snapping a rising screen shot through Zdeno Chara's legs that handcuffed Rask. With four points over his past four games, the second-year center's goal marked the first time he has tallied in consecutive games.
But the Bruins answered just over four minutes later when they pounced on Nik Antropov's turnover. Caron sped into the Winnipeg zone and made it a 1-1 game by pumping a hard shot that climbed on Pavelec and snuck under the crossbar.
The Jets regained their lead at 15:50 when Dustin Byfuglien lugged the puck across the Bruins' blue line and left a drop pass for Wheeler. The speedy forward skated into the high slot and fired a low shot through Rask's pads.
The Bruins stormed out at the start of the third period and tied the game at 2-2. Tyler Seguin flipped a slot pass to Krejci, who gloved the puck, settled it and then flicked it over Pavelec 49 seconds into the period.
Winnipeg went ahead to stay 3:28 later when Wheeler cranked a hard shot from the top of the circles that Rask kicked back into the slot. Little scooped up the rebound and slid it past the goaltender. At 6:20, Wheeler and Little connected again and put the Jets up by two goals. Wheeler zipped a cross-slot pass to Little at the left of Rask, where he lifted a shot over the goaltender.
Wheeler's effort against his former team left Noel pleased.
"To me," Noel said, "Wheeler played like he wasn't going to be denied in this game."
The Jets will spend Saturday recovering before facing the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday. A team in a desperate battle for their own playoff lives, Colorado will pose another challenge for the Jets. But beating the Bruins at least permits Noel's club to catch its breath for a day. A daunting stretch against Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and St. Louis awaits the Jets next week.
"With back-to-back games, it's been a real test for us," Wheeler said, "and now we're obviously in a dog fight for our lives, so to come out tonight and beat a team of Boston's caliber, it's a huge feather in our cap."