WINNIPEG – It was their turn to say thanks.
The Jets, with one of their finest performances of the season on Fan Appreciation Night Sunday, ushered more than 15,000 of the NHL’s best fans home with a smile and something to talk about over the summer.
In the end, it was a 5-1 win over the division rival Minnesota Wild, with five different players contributing offensively, and with Ondrej Pavelec making 28 saves in a game that ‘mattered’ more to the opposition.
As a result, the Wild missed an opportunity to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their fate is now in the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, who are five points back, but have three games left to Minnesota’s two.
As for the Jets – after starting the season 11-5-1 on home ice, they finished with an 18-19-4 home record. But it was the 18th that fans of the club will remember most for the next little while.
It was Winnipeg Jets hockey – fuelled by passion, as it were – on full display. While some teams out of the playoff picture have faltered in the final few weeks, the Jets have continued to play their guts out. It culminated with what we all saw tonight: A near-perfect conclusion to a tough season, giving everyone a much-needed breather and the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a winning atmosphere.
Enjoy it, Jets fans.
“The veterans have driven (us),” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “(Blake) Wheeler and (Dustin) Byfuglien are playing as hard and as well as they have all year. Dustin didn’t get a point tonight but he was +3. There’s some accountability and pride for the other players when they see those guys competing and not being casual about the game.”
The Jets have three of a possible four points in their last two games – the first, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Stanley Cup contending Chicago Blackhawks, and tonight’s blowout victory against a desperate team in need of them.
Rolling over. Not here. Pride, man.
“It’s unfortunate to be in the situation we’re in, and while we can’t control that anymore, we can control what’s ahead of us,” said Chris Thorburn, who scored the winning goal. “That was a big game for Minnesota and for us, so…I’m just proud of the way we battled. It was a great effort by everybody.”
Mark Scheifele opened the scoring with his team-leading 27th of the season – a power-play marker – at 17:55 of the first. Scheifele finished off a beautiful three-way passing play between himself, Alexander Burmistrov and Nikolaj Ehlers, hammering a shot to the back of the cage from just outside the crease.
With the goal, Scheifele has now tallied 29 points (15G, 14A) in his last 23 games.
The Jets doubled their lead with Thorburn’s goal at 12:37 of the middle frame. With the Wild pressing for the equalizer, Mikael Granlund tried to feed the puck back to the point, but it was picked off by Matt Halischuk, who made an all-around great play at the defensive blue line to turn it back the other way. In alone, ‘the beard’ buried a shot blocker side for his first in 47 games – the eventual game-winner.
“I’ve deked a couple times [recently] and that didn’t work out, so I thought I’d try a quick shot,” Thorburn said. “It feels great. The overall effort and the way (the game) ended, I’m proud of the whole thing.”
The Wild cut the deficit in half at 7:37 of the third, as Granlund jumped on a loose puck at the side of the net and fired a shot into the yawning cage, but the push didn’t last. Andrew Copp restored the two-goal lead with his fifth of the year at 9:03. The rookie made a beautiful move on a one-on-one-turned-breakaway, walking Wild defenceman Matt Dumba before sliding a shot five-hole on Devan Dubnyk.
“I saw an opportunity and I just tried to take it,” Copp said. “I had a lot of speed in the neutral zone. I felt that the angle was right. The way the breakout happened, I was alone up there, so I knew I had protection behind me.
“That’s a playoff team we just played. We’re not looking to mail it in. We’re looking to go win those games in California, too.’
Drew Stafford put this one to bed with a power-play goal at 12:55. After Dubnyk made the initial save in tight, Stafford followed up on his own rebound and chopped it high over the goalie’s right shoulder to make it a 4-1 game.
“They’ve stuck with us through some tough times this year,” Stafford said of the fans. “For them to continue and support us, to come to games the way they have, it means a lot to us. It’s a small victory for us to finish with a win at home, against a team like that.
An empty-netter from Blake Wheeler rounded out the scoring with under three to play.
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com