WINNIPEG - The already tumultuous uphill terrain turned mountainous on the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday.
The Pittsburgh Penguins used a four-goal second period - including three in a 57-second span - a hat trick by Nick Bonino and a three-point (2G, 1A) night from Evgeni Malkin to score a 7-4 win at MTS Centre, putting a major dent in the Jets' teetering playoff hopes.
With the loss, the Jets remain five points back of the St. Louis Blues for the final wild-card berth, but the Blues have three games in hand.
The Jets have 14 games left to climb back into it.
Shawn Matthias, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien & Marko Dano had the goals for Winnipeg. Connor Hellebuyck was pulled after allowing five goals on 15 shots. Michael Hutchinson stopped 15 of 17 in the final 30 minutes.
Video: POSTGAME | Paul Maurice
The Jets had a strong start, and were either on top or tied for the entire first half of the game, but a couple of power-play markers 20 seconds apart, and a third at evens only 37 seconds after that, gave the Penguins a commanding 5-3 lead by the midway point of the second period.
"We got into that second period and had a hard time keeping up," said Head Coach Paul Maurice. "They've got such speed through their lineup that if you're behind it at all, you're not catching them and that's how we got into trouble. We couldn't match their speed for the full 60 minutes. We could only do it for a while."
Back-to-back penalties to Bryan Little and Ben Chiarot gave the Pens a 1:13-long 5-on-3, and the Jets could not come up with a kill on either of the two manpower advantages.
Malkin rounded out the scoring in that meek, near minute-long span off a pass from Carl Hagelin at 10:06 to put the Jets - who recorded eight of the first 10 shots in the period - in a hole that was about to get even bigger. Bonino completed the hat trick at 18:32 with a blistering shot from the near circle for the Penguins' third PPG of the game.
Video: POSTGAME | Bryan Little
"Recently I think we've been playing really well, playing the opposite of how we did tonight with good team defence," Little said. "I think we kind of got away from that tonight. If you get into that back-and-forth game and trade chances with them, you're not (going to have any success)."
The coach agreed.
"It doesn't take much for them (to score) on their chances," Maurice said. "They're not putting pucks to the net, they're placing their shots and they're good at it."
The Jets built a 3-2 lead and a 14-11 shot advantage after a crazy and thoroughly entertaining opening period that saw teams combine for the 44 penalty minutes.
The action kicked off with a pair of heavyweight bouts as Winnipeg looked to even the score for the predatory hit Malkin delivered on Blake Wheeler in the previous meeting less than a month ago in Pittsburgh.
The two squared off less than five minutes into the contest, igniting an old-school donnybrook that all 15,294 on hand could not get enough of. Immediately after, Chris Thorburn and the visitors' nuclear deterrent, Tom Sestito, went toe-to-toe in a lengthy tilt that saw numerous haymakers connect each way.
"I have a lot of respect for him answering the bell like that," Wheeler said of Malkin. "He didn't have to do that so it was good to get that out of the way right away and focus on the rest of the game."
Sestito, meanwhile, was later ejected for an illegal check from behind that knocked Toby Enstrom out of the game. Enstrom was taken to the hospital and was being treated for possible facial fractures, according to Maurice.
The coach was none too pleased with the action of Sestito, who was recalled earlier today after spending the past three-and-a-half months in the minors.
"He wasn't called up to dangle," Maurice said. "We're going to lose a good defenceman for a while."
Once the fisticuffs were again taken care of, there was, after all, a hockey game on tap.
With the crowd buzzing, Matthias opened the scoring for the Jets at 4:19, but Bonino tied things up for the Pens only 24 seconds later.
Matthias made a beautiful move in tight, going backhand shelf on Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray after getting a great pass from Adam Lowry on an odd-man break. The goal snapped a season-long 15-game drought for the winger, giving him eight on the year.
Bonino got it right back, though, firing a weak one from the near boards through traffic and over the screened Hellebuyck's right shoulder.
Moments after an Andrew Copp 'goal' was washed out due to goaltender interference, the Jets put one on the board for good as Ehlers wired home his 22nd of the year. With the speed down the left side, the sophomore bombed a 35-foot, seeing-eye slap shot bar down to give the Jets a 2-1 lead.
Video: PIT@WPG: Ehlers goes bar-down with scorching wrister
But like they did earlier in the period, the Pens were quick to reply. Malkin took a breakaway pass from Phil Kessel and made no mistake in alone, tossing a shot just under to blocker to even the score at 11:56.
At 16:09, Mark Scheifele made a strong play off the rush and got a great shot from a high-danger area. Murray knocked it down with the glove, but was unable to corral the rebound, giving Byfuglien a free crack at it in tight. The big man bowled his way through the blue paint and jammed it upstairs for his 10th of the year.
Video: PIT@WPG: Byfuglien roofs second-chance opportunity
Unfortunately for the Jets, the positives ended there.
The club will have the day off on Thursday and will return to practice on Friday before closing out a six-game home stand on Saturday against the Calgary Flames.
- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com