WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets continued their improbable march toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs by rallying to beat the Boston Bruins 3-1 on Tuesday and reclaim first place in the Southeast Division at MTS Centre.
The Jets struck twice in 57 seconds to erase Boston's 1-0 third-period lead and send the Bruins to their third straight road defeat. Former Bruin Blake Wheeler ended Tuukka Rask's shutout bid when he tied the game by scoring a power-play goal with 8:16 left in regulation before Evander Kane put the Jets ahead 2-1.
"They're huge," Wheeler said of the Bruins. "These guys are tough to play against. They have a recipe for success on the road. They were playing their road game [perfectly]. They want to frustrate you. That's when they put it down your throat and make it 2-0, 3-0. It wasn't pretty, but they seldom are when you're playing really good teams."
Taking out an opponent the likes of the Bruins left Jets coach Claude Noel feeling that his club had passed a major test against one of the League's elite clubs. The Winnipeg franchise has not reached the postseason since 2007, and Boston provided the Jets a taste of what playoff hockey means. Winnipeg also won for the first time this season when trailing after the second period.
"I think it says a lot about our team," Noel said. "We know how [the Bruins] play. That's not an easy team to beat. I think it speaks volumes about our team. [The Bruins] force you to keep your head level in the game. We didn't do that in the second [period]."
"I thought that was what we did the best -- we regrouped, refocused and then we got things going again," Noel continued. "It speaks volumes. But there are no easy games. The Bruins are the Bruins. They're great. We have a lot of respect for them. They've won [a Stanley Cup]. Finding ways to win, it's such a fine line in the [League] between winning and losing, it's scary."
Wheeler, who has six goals in his past five games, added an empty-netter in the final seconds as the Jets (16-12-2) moved two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes, who lost 4-1 to Florida at home, into the Southeast Division lead and third overall in the Eastern Conference. Boston's loss, combined with the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-1 home win against Washington, leaves the Bruins (19-6-3) two points behind the Northeast Division-leading Montreal Canadiens and five points behind Pittsburgh for the Eastern Conference lead.
"It's something that shouldn't be acceptable from our end of it," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of surrendering a third-period lead to Winnipeg's quick-strike attack. "We should be better than that. We need to be more composed."
Strong work by Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec kept a sluggish Winnipeg club within a goal deep into the third period. Only a second-period goal from Boston's Brad Marchand, playing his 200th NHL game, dented Pavelec's performance. Pavelec delivered a 27-save evening that included a third-period sliding stop on Zdeno Chara's bid for an insurance goal with the Bruins leading 1-0. Jets captain Andrew Ladd extended his scoring streak to a season-high five games for the Jets, who have won four of their past five games.
"I felt good in the net," Pavelec said, "and the guys did a great job. It wasn't an easy game for us. Boston knows how to play those games, and they know how to close those games. Every time we play them, it's a close game."
Winnipeg's ability to move past an ineffective second period pleased Noel, and he viewed the Bruins as a good benchmark for his club.
"From that standpoint, I liked the will of the [dressing] room," Noel said, "and the leadership group trying to get us to play in the right areas and not deal with negative emotion and frustration. We stuck to it, and things worked out okay. You've got to do it collectively."
"You've got to stay on task," Noel continued. "[The Bruins] know how to stay on-task. They've gone down that road, and they've gone through four rounds of major games. That's what you do when you win in the end."
However, Boston's trademark ability to strangle opposing comeback bids has abandoned the Bruins at times this season. Late breakdowns continue to bedevil Julien's club, and it is irritating the Bruins' veteran dressing room. The Bruins have lost six games in regulation; they've had a third-period lead in five of them.
"It's not good enough," veteran Shawn Thornton said. "We should be [ticked] off. It's becoming a habit. It's not acceptable. We've got to have that mentality that we're going to get that next goal, not just hope that we're going to get the next one. It's not good enough. It's happened too often, that's for sure."
The late-game failings are new to a Bruins' club that had made composed defensive play and ability to shut down opponents part of its identity. Boston closed out all 32 of its leads that it took into the third period last season and went 25-0-1 during the 2010-11 regular season en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
"When we have third-period leads," Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk said, "we're usually good at capitalizing and shutting teams down. We should be stepping on the pedal and going after them, scoring that next goal to push them down. We should come back and try to put that behind us and go right after them right away."
Jordan Caron's hooking penalty midway through the third period sent the Jets' 27th-ranked power play to work against the League's top penalty kill. But Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian fired a long, skipping shot from the right point that Wheeler deflected high past Rask to tie the game.
Kane needed less than a minute to put the Jets ahead by jamming home the rebound of Grant Clitsome's shot from the edge of Rask's crease with 7:19 to play. Wheeler's empty-netter in the final minute tied him with Ladd for the club lead in goals with 14.
Boston found itself in trouble early after losing defenseman Adam McQuaid two minutes into the contest when Eric Tangradi delivered a heavy corner hit to the right of Rask's net. McQuaid did not return, leaving the Bruins with five defensemen for the rest of the game against a speedy Winnipeg attack.
Boston jumped ahead just eight seconds into the second period when Marchand forced a Bogosian turnover, out-raced the defenseman to the loose puck and slipped his team-high 15th goal past a surprised Pavelec.
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