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Jets score three in 9:27, defeat Kings 5-2

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG – If there was ever any doubt the NHL season had unofficially shifted into playoff mode, Sunday’s game between the Jets and defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings vehemently grounded that concern.

Simply put: We’re in for a heck of a ride the rest of the way.

Andrew Ladd tallied a pair, while Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers and Blake Wheeler (EN) added singles in a 5-2 win over the Kings at MTS Centre.

Michael Hutchinson – who’s now started six of the past seven games and is 5-0-3 in his past eight overall – made 18 saves in the win, his 19th of the year.

With the victory, the Jets improve to 32-20-12 and with 76 points on the year, continue to lead the Western Conference Wild Card.

“The last six periods have been pretty darn close to the way we want to look [long-term],” Head Coach Paul Maurice said.

“I’m happy with the way we played.”

This four-game home stand, along with the additional practice time, specifically, appears to have come at the right time.

“It’s the schedule,” Maurice said of the team’s play in recent weeks. “Our best blocks of hockey – November, December – Detroit in here and St. Louis in here, we lost both of them but played very well. Those are similar to the last two games. It never felt that we were home for any length of time. … They’re all tight games, but right now we’re a little more rested than we had been the first three months (of the season).

“And we’ve had some practice time, which has been pretty good.”

Shots on goal favoured the Jets – who had a 1-0 lead – 9-4 after one period of play.

Stafford gave the Jets the early advantage with a nifty goal in tight at 6:34. After forcing the puck off the stick of LA defender Robyn Regehr, Jiri Tlusty dished off in front to Mark Scheifele, who then shovelled a pass across to the eventual goal-scorer. At the lip of the blue paint, Stafford made no mistake, roofing a shot up and over the sprawling Jonathan Quick for his 11th of the year.

The Jets had a 5-0 lead in shots at this point and were firmly in the driver’s seat.

“We’re going well right now,” Stafford said.

“It’s all about us in here. If we’re moving our feet and controlling the pace physically, we can compete with anybody. … I thought we did a really good job of controlling the pace, being quick on the forecheck and making their D make plays. We got a couple bounces, too, so we’ll take it.”

At the other end, Hutchinson wasn’t overly busy, but he was good when he had to be in the opening 20. The rookie netminder made four saves in the period, including a mammoth one off the stick of Jordan Nolan, who was sprung on a breakaway late.

“These points are important and we want to show that we can play with these guys,” Hutchinson said. “They’ve had a lot of playoff success over the years and tonight was another playoff-style game for us.”

The Jets went back to work offensively after killing a roughing penalty assessed at the 20-minute mark of the opening period. Tlusty, Scheifele and Stafford continued to dominate, territorially pounding the Kings into back-to-back icing calls before engineering a beautiful chance in tight. Unfortunately for the Jets, Tlusty’s one-time attempt rang off the crossbar before rocketing out of play.

Undeterred after Jeff Carter briefly brought the Kings back on even terms, the Jets took over.

With time, space and everything in between, Myers walked in from the point, rifling a shot past Quick for the go-ahead goal at 10:43. Less than a minute later, the Jets went up by two as Ladd deposited a rebound left by Bryan Little.

Bang-bang. 3-1. Cue the crowd and more of that playoff-like intensity.

Scheifele was proof of that. After being on the wrong end of a hit Brayden McNabb, the second-year pivot took matters into his own hands, levelling Trevor Lewis with a gargantuan open-ice hit to settle the score in the cleanest and most appropriate way possible.

The kid’s got spunk.

“The more desperate the games have been, the more physical they are,” Maurice said. “When we play a physical team, the referees will allow physicality on both sides. The games that are up and down the ice with very little contact – we fit better into the (physical) games.”

With 44 seconds to play in the period, Ladd put this one to bed, whipping a shot past Quick to put the Jets up 4-1 on their 20th shot of the night.

Quick was replaced by Martin Jones to begin the third period.

“There’s a consistency that Andrew has in his game,” Maurice said. “The way he prepares, the way he practices and the way plays that you have to have from your leader. He set the tone with 10 hits the other night. Everybody follows. That’s what leadership is. Usually when he’s on, everybody else is, too.”

Carter added one late, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Wheeler tallied into the empty net with 55 seconds to play to seal a 5-2 victory.

“It says that we’re comfortable with the style that we play and have a good understanding about how we need to do to win those hockey games,” Ladd said.

“We head into every game knowing that we can beat any team. Everyone’s involved and everyone feels a part of it. … When you’re in the position that you’re in, you’re playing teams that you’re fighting for your playoff lives with. There’s definitely a bigger emotional attachment to those games and it’s easier to get up for them.

“It’s a fun time of year. It still doesn’t compare to playoff time – but we’re getting closer and closer to that, so it will be exciting if we can get there.”

LATE HITS: After the game it was announced that the Jets had made a trade, acquiring forward Lee Stempniak from the New York Rangers in exchange for prospect Carl Klingberg.

“He’s another solid NHLer – another good two-way guy that can make plays and he plays a really solid game,” Ladd said.

“He’s a guy with a lot of experience that can come in here and help us out.”

— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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