WINNIPEG – For the second straight game, the Winnipeg Jets were on the receiving end of a heartbreaker.
Chris Kreider broke a 2-2 tie with 3:46 to play in the third period as the Metro Division-leading New York Rangers defeated the Jets 3-2 Tuesday night at MTS Centre.
Kreider was sprung on a breakaway by JT Miller and after galloping behind the defence, the 23-year-old tucked home a backhand for the eventual game-winner.
Jim Slater and Lee Stempniak scored for the Jets, while Ondrej Pavelec stopped 21 of 24 shots in a losing effort.
With the loss, the Jets fall to 39-26-12 and remain two points up on the Los Angeles Kings for the second and final wild-card playoff spot with 90 points on the year.
The Kings have one game in hand.
“It was one of those games where we were right on the edge all game,” Bryan Little, who made his return to the lineup after missing 11 games with an upper-body injury, said after finishing -1 with three shots in nearly 20 minutes of ice time. “It honestly felt like they didn’t get much, but the stuff we did give them, they took advantage of and scored. It was one of those games. It could have gone either way.
“We realize the games are bigger right now. There’s some tension out there – some nerves – the guys could feel it with how big these points are.”
“The emotions are all high at this point,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “We talked [in the dressing room] about how we’re going to proceed.”
The teams traded goals in the front half of the first and were locked in a 1-1 tie through 20 minutes of play.
The Jets got the desired start, opening the scoring three-and-a-half minutes in as the reconfigured fourth line delivered in a big way.
Score one for the foot soldiers.
Hustling after a loose puck deep in enemy territory, Chris Thorburn – fighting off the check of a stickless Keith Yandle – snapped a quick shot on goal. Slater was there on the rebound, flipping a shot under the arm of Henrik Lundqvist for his fourth of the year and second in three games.
“I thought we played well enough to get points,” Slater said. “It’s tough to swallow. … There’s no concern, but it’s frustrating and tough to take.”
Mats Zuccarello brought the game back on even terms at 9:42, firing a shot into the open side after inadvertently blocking the initial point shot from Hart Trophy candidate Rick Nash. Nash and the team leader in assists, Derick Brassard, recorded the helpers.
Shots on goal favoured the Jets 16-9 after one period of action.
Undeterred, the Jets went back out in front early in the middle frame. Picking up right where they left off with regard to the territorial edge, it was again a role player – against his former team, no less – doing the damage offensively.
Flying down the far side, Stempniak converted a beautiful three-way passing play, rifling a shot top shelf on Lundqvist for the go-ahead goal.
“It always feels nice to contribute, this is a tough loss for us,” Stempniak said. “We played a hard game. They played well and we played well, but they found a way and we didn’t. … At this point, you’ve got to find a way to pick up points.
“The message as a group is to move on to the next game. We can’t do anything about it now. We’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for the next one against Vancouver on Saturday.”
With Mathieu Perreault off for interference, Brassard stepped into a screened shot from the top of the faceoff circle, tying the game, 2-2, at 10:13.
Jiri Tlusty hit the post early in the third, setting the stage for Kreider’s winner – a beauty – at 16:14.
“It’s tough,” Slater said. “We have a day off tomorrow and don’t play again until Saturday. As athletes you want to get back at it and play right away, but that’s what we’re given here. It’s going to give us a chance to regroup, get some practice time in and we’ll come back on Saturday.
“I don’t have any worries about this team in here. We’re going to battle until the end, for sure.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com