WINNIPEG – Jets coach Claude Noel has stressed that his club must build and sustain consistency. He's yelled, cajoled and utilized every other tactic at his disposal to get his message across since taking over in June 2011. But at long last the Jets are following Noel's orders, and the victories are starting to come.
Noel's club picked up its fourth win in five games Thursday by beating the New York Rangers 3-1 at MTS Centre, running its points streak to a season-best five games. The Jets (14-11-2) moved into eighth place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Rangers (13-11-2), who have a game in hand.
"You can't take your feet off the pedal," Noel said of a club that has often struggled to turn solid efforts into wins. "That's going to be the key for us -- to play the same way. To me, what the difference is right now, is that we're emotionally involved in the game, both with the emotions and physicality. That, I think, is driving our team."
The Jets' victory, combined with Carolina's home loss to Washington, moved Winnipeg within a point of the Hurricanes for first place in the Southeast Division. The win sets up a showdown Saturday night in Toronto when the Jets face the seventh-place Maple Leafs, who lead the Jets by a point.
"I think we're focusing on the process of winning," Noel said. "I think we can feel the excitement generated from being at the [playoff] line, near the line. I think that's driving our game. I think we're feeding off each other. Our objectives seem to be in the right place right now."
New York, meanwhile, has lost back-to-back games at Buffalo and Winnipeg this week; the Rangers finish a four-game trip Saturday at Pittsburgh. Producing one win over the past four games has undone the gains that a four-game winning streak had made for the Rangers.
"We don't want to panic by any means," defenseman Dan Girardi said, "but we've got to show some desperation and try to find our game here."
Antti Miettinen's first goal of the season late in the second period broke a 1-1 tie and sent the Jets ahead for good. Andrew Ladd hit the empty net with 38.7 seconds remaining to wrap up the Jets' second win in as many meetings with the Rangers. Nik Antropov also scored for the second consecutive game for Winnipeg after having only one goal in his first 24 games, pushing his point streak to a season-high four games. The Jets remain mired in a 3-for-42 slump on the power play, but Antropov has recorded man-advantage goals in each of the Jets' past two games.
"It was not the prettiest one," Miettinen said of his goal, "but it's just as important as a pretty goal, too. If you go there and win some battles, sometimes you get the chances, and you get lucky."
Ondrej Pavelec stopped 28 shots, including Marian Gaborik's first-period penalty shot. Pavelec also stopped a Gaborik penalty shot in February 2011. Winnipeg's penalty kill also ran its streak to 26-for-26.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan tied Rick Nash for the team lead with his ninth goal. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 30 Winnipeg shots. The Rangers have provided Lundqvist with just four goals in the three games he has started over the past week -- all losses.
Two nights after criticizing his team's play against Buffalo, Rangers coach John Tortorella took a softer approach. But Tortorella lamented the Rangers' inability to punish Winnipeg for its defensive miscues. Gaborik, Nash and Brad Richards all had prime scoring opportunities that failed to produce goals.
"We had some chances to score goals," Tortorella said, "but we didn't. [We're] not going to win many games scoring one goal. [Lundqvist] gave us a chance, but we couldn't keep the puck in the third period."
Lundqvist shared Tortorella's frustration.
"We need to find ways to win," Lundqvist said. "It doesn't matter how we do it. If I have to cut down a goal [-against] instead, then that has to be my approach. We need to turn this around quickly.
"It's tough right now," Lundqvist continued. "It's really frustrating. I think we work pretty hard. We do a lot of good things, but like I told you here, games are decided in front of both nets. We need to have traffic in front of [the opposition's] net and be a little tougher in front of our net."
Winnipeg pounced on the Rangers from the start, with Antropov scoring 1:56 after the opening faceoff. The Jets outshot the Rangers 11-3 in the game's first 11 minutes.
Antropov, who posted a three-point effort in Winnipeg's 5-2 victory Tuesday against Toronto, backhanded the rebound of Dustin Byfuglien's long shot through Lundqvist's pads 12 seconds after Michael Del Zotto was sent off for cross-checking. Antropov became the 13th Winnipeg player to score first in the 15 games in which the Jets have opened the scoring.
However, the Rangers registered nine of the game's next 10 shots, including the breakaways that Gaborik and Nash did not convert. The Rangers maintained that offensive presence into the second period and tied the game at 1-1 when Derek Stepan peeled off the left boards and fired a long shot that Callahan clipped enough to elude Pavelec's glove at 1:11.
The teams remained tied until 14:52, when Miettinen parked himself at the edge of Lundqvist's crease before a Byfuglien right-point shot bounced off him and trickled between the goaltender's pads. Winnipeg then clamped down on the Rangers in the final period, outshooting them 11-7 and putting the game away when Ladd hit the empty net.
"The third period was really good," Pavelec said. "That's a tough team to play against. They know how to play those [close] games. We handled it pretty well."
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