WINNIPEG – With the nation watching live on a stage of iconic proportions, the Jets – buoyed by yet another boisterous MTS Centre crowd – delivered.
Boy, did they deliver.
The emotion was palpable. The passion, real. On one of the coldest nights of the year in downtown Winnipeg, the home team heated up and hit full stride, dismantling the Toronto Maple Leafs by a 5-1 score.
Five different goal-scorers contributed to the win, including Ben Chiarot, who scored his first-career NHL goal at 10:55 of the third period.
TJ Galiardi, Matt Halischuk, Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little rounded out the scoring. In goal, Michael Hutchinson had one of his easier nights between the pipes, seeing only 21 shots and answering all but one en route to victory. With the win, the 27-year-old improves to 10-3-2 on the year.
“It was really important that we played the game that we needed to play,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “Being able to use everybody is important, not only because you’re not burning up your lineup every night, but to also make players feel like they’re important and are part of the team.
“It’s good that everybody gets a piece of it.”
The Jets controlled the play for much of the opening 20 minutes, outshooting the Leafs 10-4 (40-21 overall) by period’s end. James Reimer was exceptional between the pipes, making a number of acrobatic saves – including a shot hot off the stick of Michael Frolik, who was leading a 2-on-1 with Byfuglien – to preserve the scoreless tie through one.
But it didn’t take much longer for the Jets to crack the armour. Undeterred after Mike Santorelli opened the scoring for the visitors, the Jets rallied back, scoring twice in a two-and-a-half minute span to take a 2-1 lead by the six-minute mark of the middle frame.
Galiardi got the ball rolling after Byfuglien worked some magic down low, forcing a turnover that popped into the slot and onto the stick of No. 21, who made no mistake in depositing his first of the season. At 5:59, Halischuk gave the Jets their first lead of the night, redirecting a Chiarot point shot past Reimer, pelting the twine just under the bar.
"It’s something we’ve been working on all year," Galiardi said. "When you give up a goal, you want to come back right away and have a good shift. Earlier in the year we struggled with that and it snowballed a bit, but I think we’ve done better of late and we showed that here tonight.”
The Jets weren’t done. With the crowd roaring ever louder, Byfuglien extended the lead to 3-1, finishing off a seam pass from Blake Wheeler with a quick flick through the wickets of the goaltender.
On their fourth power-play of the night, 3:37 into the third, Little put this one to bed, waltzing down the pipe before rifling a shot top shelf on a furious Reimer. The goalie’s frustrations mounted later in the period as Chiarot beat him clean, wiring a slap shot off the post and in for the youngster’s first of hopefully many in a Jets uniform.
The goal was originally credited to Andrew Ladd, but was later – and rightfully – changed to No. 63, who was proudly sporting the famous Hockey Night in Canada towel after the game.
“I’m glad it wasn’t an empty-netter or something cheesy like that,” he laughed.
“That was one of the keys to our game plan tonight, to get pucks to the net and have guys going there. It worked out well and our team got a big win. It was a good night."