WINNIPEG – The New Jersey Devils just wanted to nip a trend in the bud entering Saturday night's game with the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets, up against a New Jersey club needing to break a three-game losing streak, continue to attempt to establish a home-ice presence. Winnipeg, two days removed from a strong shutout win over the Phoenix Coyotes, is in a stretch of 12 of 14 games at the MTS Centre this month and badly needs to collect points, especially against Eastern Conference opponents.
Winnipeg's trend won out as Mark Stuart scored with 6:47 remaining in the third period to earn the Jets a 4-2 win in a very physical, chippy contest in front of 15,004 at the MTS Centre.
The Jets, now 11-11-4, moved to .500 with the win. Seven of the Jets' 11 wins this season have been at home, five of those victories coming over the team’s last six MTS Centre dates.
"We've been trying to get to [.500] for a while," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said. "We're trying to make hay when we can. We wanted to have a decent day off [on Sunday]. I don't know about you guys, but when we get a day off, we like to have a little joy in our lives. We knew that if we could win and pour everything into this game, we could have some joy in our lives."
The 12-12-1 Devils have now lost four consecutive games -- their longest drought since a four-game skid between Jan. 1-8 of last season. But the Devils controlled much of the game's pace by out-sizing and out-skating Winnipeg.
"We played hard," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "I'm not going to chalk it up to bounces or anything else. It was a hard-fought game at ice level both ways. I liked the way we played for a third-in-four and on back-to-back nights.
"We're playing hard and we're playing the right way, so we have to keep faith that we'll get the points if we keep doing that. We got a strong game from [Johan Hedberg] and from everybody. It was a gutsy effort on our part, I thought. The only disappointment is that the guys didn't get rewarded for it."
On the game-winning goal, Stuart scooted down the left boards before centering a pass from the corner into a scramble of players that dribbled past Hedberg to break a 2-2 tie. It originally appeared that Kane had jabbed the puck into the net, but Stuart received credit for the goal. It also was the second time in the game that a Jets goal went to video review, but the referees determined that the puck had crossed the goal line.
"Honestly," Stuart said, "I kind of ran out of room and just had to throw it at the net and got a nice bounce."
Hedberg, who spelled Martin Brodeur in relief a night earlier in Minnesota, returned to Winnipeg, where he spent time as a farmhand earlier in his career. Hedberg stopped 16 of 19 shots. Hedberg carried significant ties to Winnipeg and its NHL franchise into the MTS Centre. The 38-year-old netminder played 62 games over three separate stints with the Manitoba Moose and logged four seasons with the Jets franchise when it was based in Atlanta.
"It was tough," Hedberg said of the Jets scoring twice off bad puck bounces. "We were playing a great game, and those untimely goals [were scored] against us."
Evander Kane then closed out the Devils with an empty-net goal, the second of his two goals. Kane's offensive work extended his points streak to five games (6-1-7).
Winnipeg also received a goal from Alexander Burmistrov, a pair of assists from Bryan Little and a 23-save performance from Ondrej Pavelec. The Jets managed just eight shots over a stretch of 27:41that extended into the third period, but Pavelec, making his 17th start in the Jets’ last 18 games, held off several strong New Jersey chances.
Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias scored for the Devils. Hedberg, who spelled Martin Brodeur in relief a night earlier in Minnesota, stopped 16 of 19 shots.
First periods have been a weak spot for the Devils on this four-game road trip so far. Colorado and Minnesota both rang up three-goal first periods in the Devils' past two games, and Winnipeg struck just 1:42 off the opening face-off when Kane redirected a Dustin Byfuglien shot past Hedberg. The officials initially ruled that Kane's stick was above the cross bar and waved off the goal but overturned the call after further review.
But Henrique extended his point streak to five games when he snapped a shot that snuck under Pavelec's glove to tie the game at 1-1 at 5:53.
After an otherwise quiet first period in which the Jets owned a 7-5 shots advantage, New Jersey gained control of the game's pace in the second period, sending nine shots at Pavelec in the opening 7:27 of the middle stanza.
Then the Devils showed the other side of their special-teams play when Winnipeg's Jason Jaffray and Andrew Ladd took penalties 14 seconds apart late in the second period. Elias needed the Devils' only shot of the power play to put the Devils up 2-1 when he snuck a right-circle shot on his off wing past Pavelec with 2:36 left in the period.
But Ladd had not yet even exited the penalty box when the Jets wiped out the New Jersey lead 1:07 later. Ilya Kovalchuk fumbled Hedberg's bouncing clear up the right boards. Little seized the puck and zipped a pass across the slot to Burmistrov, who beat Hedberg before he could scramble back into position for a 2-2 game.
Both clubs threatened in the third period. Byfuglien cranked a shot off Hedberg's cross bar midway through the period. Then with eight minutes to play, Pavelec went post-to-post to swallow an Elias one-timer from the right circle.
"It's good to see when you are holding on to those one-goal leads in the third period," Stuart said of the Jets holding a third-period lead, something that has been a significant trouble spot this season for Winnipeg. "It shows that your team is learning how to win. If you look at the best teams in the League, they get up by one or two goals, they shut the door, and that's it."