WINNIPEG – The Tampa Bay Lightning made headlines Sunday by dismissing coach Guy Boucher, but it was an addition to the Winnipeg Jets’ lineup that helped make a difference when the clubs met later in the evening at MTS Centre.
Tobias Enstrom’s return from a shoulder injury made an immediate difference against the Lightning, as the Jets took a 3-2 decision. The mobile defenseman, who had missed 19 games to injury, paired with Dustin Byfuglien, chipped in the game-winning goal and clocked 23:40 of ice time on the Jets’ top defensive pairing. Enstrom’s work helped the Jets end a two-game skid in which the Washington Capitals had outscored them 10-1.
“He was good,” Jets coach Claude Noel said of Enstrom. “You can see what he can bring. The power play, you can see what he can bring with his play-making and thinking. I thought he was pretty good. I think [Byfuglien], they like playing together, so that's a good fit.”
The Jets (17-14-2) fought off a stubborn Lightning club playing its first game under interim coaches Daniel Lacroix, Martin Raymond and Steve Thomas. Tampa Bay (13-18-1) has now lost three straight games and faded to six points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“It's an emotional day for the team,” Lacroix said of the coaching change, “but I thought the players responded well and played hard. It's a tight group in the room and an emotional group, too.”
“[Vice president and general manager] Steve [Yzerman] met with them,” Lacroix added. “Guys are professional. They know the business and it's looking forward. The leadership took care of it and for us, it's just a matter of supporting them.”
Winnipeg increased its Southeast Division to four points over the idle Carolina Hurricanes, whom they will meet Tuesday at PNC Arena. Carolina owns three games in hand on Winnipeg, however.
“It’s hard to say if [it is] bigger than others,” Jets captain Andrew Ladd said of the win, “because there are so many big games right now. It’s nice to stop a slide and get back in the win column. Everyone knows what’s going on and how tight the race is, and we need to be winning hockey games right now.”
Meanwhile up front, center Bryan Little, whom Noel termed “outstanding,” helped the Jets overcome a slow start with a first-period goal before he chipped in two assists. Byfuglien provided Winnipeg’s 28th-ranked power play, tangled in a 4-for-57 slide, with a goal on the man advantage. Stamkos sliced the Winnipeg lead to 2-1 with his League-leading 22nd goal, but the Jets held their lead two nights after a 6-1 loss to the Capitals.
“We could have sat around,” Little said, “moped around and been negative [after the loss to Washington], but we did a really good job of putting that game behind us.”
Enstrom delivered midway through the second period. Tampa Bay had sliced the Jets’ lead to 2-1 and began administering heavy pressure on Winnipeg when Zach Bogosian’s high-sticking double-minor sent the Lightning on a power play. But Martin St. Louis followed Bogosian to the penalty box eight seconds later with a high-sticking minor in the offensive zone.
Fourteen seconds later with the clubs playing 4-on-4, Ladd’s pass from the right corner reached Enstrom, who slipped away from Steven Stamkos in the slot, where he beat Tampa Bay goaltender Cedrick Desjardins high over the right shoulder for another two-goal lead.
Tampa Bay again cut into the Winnipeg lead on Cory Conacher’s third-period tally, a tip of Eric Brewer’s floating shot with 14:59 to play. The Lightning continued to test the Jets until the game’s final minute, and Stamkos found positives in the effort for a team dealing with a coaching change amid a frustrating season.
“We played a solid game,” Stamkos said. “We haven't had a lot of those this year. When things aren't going well, they aren't going well. You have to find a way to push through them.”
Enstrom’s return accompanied Ondrej Pavelec’s 10th consecutive start that saw him rebound from a loss Friday against the Capitals in which he exited the game after allowing three goals on nine shots. Pavelec finished with 23 saves against the Lightning, the League’s third-highest scoring team. Desjardins made his second start of the season and stopped 21 of 24 Winnipeg shots.
“[Pavelec] has been arguably our best player pretty much for a long stretch of time,” Noel said, “so I'm just thankful that he's in the net, let's put it that way. He plays very well, and he really helps us. I thought he did his part and more.”
Tampa Bay dominated early, and Stamkos could have added a pair to his total early in the first period. Stamkos missed the net on a 2-on-1 rush before missing another opportunity at the edge of Pavelec’s crease. Tampa Bay controlled the game’s opening 10 minutes and took a 6-1 shots lead.
Stamkos factored into the Jets’ first goal, however, as the Jets broke a five-game streak of allowing the first goal of a game and took a lead for the first time in 134:02. Stamkos intercepted a Winnipeg pass between the circles in the Tampa Bay zone, but Blake Wheeler stripped him of the puck and moved the puck to Little, who fired a high shot that beat Desjardins at 14:02.
Winnipeg went up 2-0 early in the second period after going on the power play for the first time. Byfuglien directed a left-circle shot on net that trickled through Desjardins’ pads at 2:35. But Stamkos and the Lightning’s power play, which began the evening 16th in the League, went to work three minutes later and converted a one-timer for a 2-1 game at 6:20.
Enstrom’s goal followed 3:35 later for the Jets, who have now outscored opponents 6-1 in 4-on-4 situations.
The Jets will face the Hurricanes twice this week, with a visit to Pittsburgh to meet the Penguins sandwiched in between. Defeating a wounded Tampa Bay club to stop their skid at two games and set themselves up for a challenging week improved Noel’s mood. But Pavelec and his teammates also knew the stakes for the Jets.
“We needed this one right after the two games we played [against Washington],” Pavelec admitted.