TAMPA, Florida – Now that’s how you wrap up a road trip!
When they needed it the most, the Winnipeg Jets delivered one of their most electric performances of the season. Blake Wheeler broke a 1-1 tie at 12:44 of the third period, lifting the team to an emotional 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Amalie Arena.
Bookending a four-game road trip with wins over two of the league’s top teams, the Jets head home with a 34-23-12 record for 80 points on the year and are
back in a wild-card playoff spot.
Ondrej Pavelec made 15 saves on 16 shots as the Jets rallied back from a 1-0 deficit.
“We executed what we tried to do and when we couldn’t get it done, we fought hard to get pucks back, to block shots, and when we couldn’t get that done, our goaltender stopped the puck,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said.
“Don’t underestimate the internal pressure on himself,” Maurice added of Pavelec. “Regardless of what people write or say about Ondrej, he’s part of our team and that (the St. Louis game) hurt him more than anybody else in our locker room. He needed a little distance in the game to get back in the net and when we did, he did exactly what he needed to do.”
Drew Stafford scored the other for the Jets – a power-play marker midway through the third.
“You want to talk about gutting out a win… That fits the bill tonight,” he said. “We were on them. We were making sure that they were frustrated.”
Shots on goal favoured the Lightning 7-6 after a scoreless first period of play. The Jets out-attempted the Bolts 15-13, however, and were hard on the forecheck for much of the opening 20. Making his first start since Feb. 19, Pavelec was rock-solid between the pipes. Tyler Johnson, had a glorious opportunity to open the scoring a late power-play chance, but Pavelec came up a beautiful glove save as the Bolts’ top point-getter walked in alone from the left point.
Three minutes into the second period, Lightning defenceman Anton Stralman delivered a hip check on Mark Scheifele in the neutral zone. After a quick look by Head Athletic Therapist Rob Milette, Scheifele made it off under his own power, but then headed the room for further examination. He returned to the bench within minutes and was back on the ice with 13:48 to play in the middle frame.
Stralman was called for tripping on the play, but the Jets were unable to generate much on the ensuing man-advantage. The visitors had another opportunity to cash on a power-play chance shortly thereafter, but were unable to score despite peppering Andrei Vasilevskiy with three shots.
Moments later, Jim Slater was sprung on a breakaway but after getting hooked from behind by the charging defender (no call), Vasilevskiy made an easy save.
The Jets outshot the Lightning 16-5 in the second for a two-period tally of 22-12.
“That’s a pretty good night in the NHL, especially on the road,” Wheeler said of the team’s stingy defensive play, allowing only 16 shots. “We had to buy into that defensive game plan. That’s how we were going to win tonight,” Wheeler said. “They’re a tough team to play against, especially at home, but everyone was buying into it. Even when we got down, we never strayed from our game plan, so that was awesome. … When we play that game, we can play as well as anyone in the league.”
Nikita Kucherov opened the scoring early in the third period. Winding his way into the slot and utilizing the screen of Mark Stuart, the 21-year-old whipped a shot top shelf on Pavelec, netting his 26th of the year at 4:13.
Kucherov was later tossed from the game after running Toby Enstrom from behind, giving the Jets a full five-minute power-play. Jacob Trouba was also assessed a 10-minute misconduct on the play, leaving the Jets with limited options on defence. Jay Harrison took Trouba’s usual spot on the power-play unit.
Stafford made it a 1-1 game less than two minutes into the advantage. Curling off the half wall, Stafford picked the far corner on Vasilevskiy, drawing the Jets even at 10:00. Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty recorded the assists.
““They popped that goal to start if off and you’re starting to wonder if the nightmare was going to continue,” Wheeler said.
“If that doesn’t go in, I don’t know if we come back. That was a big goal.”
Wheeler put the Jets up 2-1 with a beautiful goal with 7:16 to play. Picking off Victor Hedman’s cross-ice pass attempt, Wheeler maneuvered to the middle before ripping a shot past Vasilevskiy for the eventual game-winning goal.
“I got a good bounce,” Wheeler said. “They were going D-to-D all night so I had a read on it. … Sometimes you get lucky.”
“It was almost a carbon copy of our game in Nashville,” Maurice added. “Everybody had a piece of that win.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com