WINNIPEG – A four-day layoff allowed the Winnipeg Jets to heal some of the bumps and bruises they acquired during their first 42 games, but the out-of-town scoreboard did coach Claude Noel's club no favors during the respite. A home date Tuesday night with the Tampa Bay Lightning finally allowed the Jets an opportunity to elbow their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race in their bid for the franchise's first visit to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007.
After wasting a two-goal third-period lead, Mike Santorelli and captain Andrew Ladd struck for the Jets in the shootout to allow Winnipeg to escape with a 4-3 victory -- their season-high fourth straight win and fourth victory in their current six-game homestand. Santorelli raced in and zipped a quick wrist shot through the pads of goaltender Ben Bishop. Ladd's shot went through the same opening, though Bishop got a piece of it, to end the game.
"You don't want to give up a 3-1 lead in the third period," Ladd said. "But at the end of the day, we had some big goals in the shootout, and we got our two points, so we'll take it and move on."
The victory gave the ninth-place Jets 46 points, tying them with the eighth-place New York Rangers, who lost 4-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers but still have a game in hand. The sixth-place Ottawa Senators (50 points) and seventh-place New York Islanders (49) both won their games, as did the Washington Capitals, who maintained their four-point lead over the Jets in the race for first place in the Southeast Division.
Winnipeg has two paths to the playoffs over its final five games. Overtaking the Capitals for control of the Southeast Division would earn the Jets home-ice advantage in the first round. Alternatively, the Jets could pass the Senators, Islanders or Rangers and make the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
The Jets will wrap up their homestand this week with a visit from the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday and what is shaping up to be a crucial Saturday matinee with the Islanders. Despite the third-period breakdown for the Jets, Winnipeg's current predicament meant that Noel did not quibble much with how his club captured two badly needed points.
"I would rather have taken it in regulation," Noel said, "but that's just my own personal preference. The two points are just as valuable any way you can get them at this point."
Winnipeg's first line built a two-goal lead in the second period. Blake Wheeler danced past two defenders in the slot before popping a shot past Bishop and under the crossbar at 8:37, breaking a 1-1 tie. Ladd followed with a power-play tally at 17:54, his second goal of the game, to take the team lead in goals with 18. Ladd also owns a five-game point streak.
"[Ladd] drives the bus," Noel said. "That's what [Ladd] can do. [Ladd] can do those things, really help your team both in the game on the ice and off the ice."
But the Lightning, who led the League with 59 third-period goals, entering the game, refused to roll over. Pierre-Cedric Labrie nudged a loose puck past Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec 5:19 into the third period to make it 3-2. Steven Stamkos followed with his 27th of the season on a high blast from the right circle that beat Pavelec at 11:17 to force overtime.
"We go into the third period," Lightning coach Jon Cooper explained, "and had an animated conversation with each other about what we needed to do to get back into the game and which recipe works. [We] executed that in the third."
"So, it's just showing the guys that this is what works," Cooper continued, "and this is what doesn't. They responded, and you've got to like that when you walk into the [dressing room]."
Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis scored a first-period goal. Bishop returned to the Tampa Bay net one day after signing a two-year contract extension that the Lightning hope will help stabilize their goaltending picture and made 33 saves.
The Lightning remain eight points out of a playoff spot with five games to play and are now winless in four games. But the third-period rally offered them an opportunity to continue working on a foundation for next season and establish a model under their new coach.
"The second half was a lot better," Stamkos said, "so we came back against a team that's extremely hungry to get into the playoffs right now. You know, down two goals in the third, we showed character."
"I think the past couple of games before this," Stamkos added, "maybe we were pressing too much and cheating. We played a nice, solid game, played the right way."
Pavelec, making his 38th start and 19th in the Jets' past 20 games, stopped 24 shots. Wheeler's three-point night marked a season-high for the Jets' second-leading scorer.
Winnipeg pounced on the Lightning early, scoring on its second shot 1:23 into the game. Ladd stepped into the high slot and placed a low shot through Bishop's pads. But Tampa Bay made it 1-1 at 10:27 when Teddy Purcell grabbed an errant pass and got it to St. Louis, who wheeled a shot from the left circle that beat Pavelec.
After Wheeler's goal, Winnipeg used its nearly dormant power play to put the Lighting into a two-goal hole. Vincent Lecavalier pulled down Winnipeg's Olli Jokinen on a scoring opportunity late in the second period. Winnipeg's sputtering power play, which ranked 28th in the League before facing Tampa Bay, had produced one goal on 21 chances over the club's past eight games.
But with two seconds left on Lecavalier's minor, Ladd sped into the left circle and snapped a high, hard shot past Bishop's glove. Ladd's goal marked the first time since March 24-26 that the Jets had scored power-play goals in consecutive games.
The four-day break in the schedule gave the Jets some rest without leaving them rusty.
"We started the game well," Wheeler said. "That was kind of a question mark coming into the game how we were going to start. I think everyone was excited fresh and ready to go."
"I think everyone was feeling good physically and mentally," Wheeler continued. "It's a good building block for us [over the final five games]."