WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets and their always-rambunctious home crowd found a rhythm on Monday night.
Returning to Winnipeg after a pair of decidedly dispassionate road losses left the Jets winless to open their season, the home club churned out a methodical 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Jets matched their crowd in intensity throughout from the opening faceoff, using a goal eight seconds into the game to set the tone for the remainder of the evening.
"We expected their team to come hard and to play with a lot of emotion and energy early on, and they did that," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of countering a Winnipeg crowd that is building a reputation around the League. "It was pretty loud in here. We needed to do something to stop the flow, because they were coming hard."
Winnipeg would have settled for a solid first period after a loss on Saturday that earned the club criticism from coach Claude Noel. Instead, the Jets put together their best period of the season, built a two-goal lead and earned themselves a standing ovation from the home crowd to close the period.
On Sunday, Noel met with his club's leadership corps, part of a process of "cleaning up the chaos" that had plagued the team to open the season. In the three losses before Monday, the Jets had been outscored by a 13-5 margin and struggled in nearly every aspect of the game.
"We played with more urgency and more pizzazz," Noel said. "I think they were as fed up as we were."
The three losses to open the season had halted the honeymoon period between a coach and a young club that is still in the transition process. Noel owns a reputation as a player-friendly coach, but the Jets tested his patience last week. Even the win did not completely mellow Noel's mood.
"If things don't go well, they're going to see a side of me they don't normally see," Noel warned. "The gloves will come off."
The Winnipeg penalty kill, source of many of the club's early-season troubles, frustrated the Penguins. The Jets killed off Pittsburgh's first two power-play opportunities and allowed just three Pittsburgh shots. Then late in the game, the Jets burned off a Pittsburgh power play with just under four minutes remaining.
Led by a fourth line of Tanner Glass, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn, the Jets pressed the Penguins throughout the evening, jumping on loose pucks, outmanning Penguins' skaters along the boards and playing a much more physical game. The second line of Kyle Wellwood, Nikolai Antropov and Alexander Burmistrov generated offensive pressure all evening.
Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec also turned in a stout 28-save effort after surrendering nine goals over his opening two starts. The Jets held a 7-0 shots advantage for the game's first 11:34 before Pittsburgh managed to record its first shot and begin threatening. Penguins left wing James Neal clanged a shot from the top of the circles off the cross bar before nearly pushing a loose puck past Pavelec after the goaltender mishandled a dump-in.
Later in the period, Neal generated another scoring chance from the edge of Pavelec's crease that Jets defenseman Tobias Enstrom. Winnipeg turned up ice and Burmistrov wrestled a loose puck from Letang before delivering a pass to Tanner Glass for a high-slot blast that beat Fleury with 1:33 to play for a 2-0 Winnipeg lead.
"Pavelec played well," Noel said. "I thought he was outstanding. Pretty hard to fault his game."
Those elements will serve as the blueprint for any success the Jets can create this season.
"It gives us something to look back on and say we need to be more like we were against Pittsburgh," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "It is something that we can use to feed off the momentum and get better and better.
"At the end of the day, it has to come from within this room. I think it just gives you a good feeling when you're doing the right things of what it takes. The feeling in here right now is just so much better than after those three losses."
The home club also survived multiple dents to the lineup. Left wing Evander Kane did not dress for the Jets after taking a puck to the skate in Saturday's loss at Phoenix. Then the Winnipeg defensive corps lost Ron Hainsey to injury (upper body) early in the second period. Later in the game, defenseman Mark Stuart took Matt Niskanen's floating shot to his face that sent him straight to the dressing room, though he would return.
Winnipeg pounced on the visitors off the opening faceoff. Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek mishandled a puck after stumbling at the Pittsburgh blue line. Michalek's turnover allowed an aggressive Jets forecheck to steer the puck into the Pittsburgh defensive zone, where Wellwood shoveled a backhander off a Burmistrov feed eight seconds into the contest. The goal tied the franchise mark for the fastest goal to start a game.
Only Michalek would beat Pavelec, and he atoned for his miscue late in the second period. Michalek snuck a shot from inside the blue line through heavy crease traffic past Pavelec to slice the Winnipeg lead to 2-1.
"Their goalie was unreal," Michalek said of his fellow countryman.