For the first 46 minutes and 44 seconds Thursday night, the Winnipeg Jets had nothing to show for an exceptional offensive performance. St. Louis Blues netminder Brian Elliott and the goalposts were the difference in a 1-0 game fuelled by physicality, animosity and emotion beyond words.
Justice soon came as Drew Stafford electrified the city.
His goal at 13:16 of the third period sent the game to overtime and eventually a shootout, where Andrew Ladd tallied the winner in a 2-1 victory – the team’s first all season when trailing after two periods. Ondrej Pavelec made 32 saves in regulation and overtime before stopping another two in the shootout, giving the Jets a third consecutive win.
With the victory, the Jets improve to 36-23-12 for 84 points, two up on the Los Angeles Kings for the second and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“There’s a reason why they’re one of the best teams in the league. They don’t give you anything. But that goes to show what kind of a team we have,” Stafford said. “To compete and make it a hard game for them… 5-on-5, we can compete with any team in the league and we proved that tonight. We’re an elite team. We’re big, we’re fast, we’re mean."
Stafford has six goals and 11 points in 15 games as a Jet. The line of Stafford, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler combined for 27 shot attempts and 14 of the Jets' 34 shots on goal.
It was a dominant display.
“He’s had a huge impact since being here,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said of the winger. “No small points. He only gets big goals and big assists. There’s an enjoyment in playing the game and being in that room for him. I don’t know what it was like in Buffalo – I know those situations are tough, especially if you’ve been there a long time. But to come in here and be a piece of it – and a huge piece of it – it’s good to be a good feeling for him.
“We played as hard we could tonight. The last three (games), especially, have been great efforts. This one demanded it.”
Shots on goal favoured the Blues 10-9 after a scoreless opening period of play. Blues defenceman Carl Gunnarsson had a glorious opportunity midway through, but after walking in alone, his backhand deke was denied by Pavelec. Making his third consecutive start, Pavelec was nothing short of exceptional all night.
The Jets were the more efficient of the two teams territorially in the opening 20, leading the Blues 18-11 in 5-on-5 shot attempts.
The visitors opened the scoring on the tail end of an Adam Lowry penalty with 11:52 remaining in the second period. After the Jets failed to clear the puck, resulting in an odd-man situation from the hash marks on in, Blues captain David Backes rifled a shot from a sharp angle, roofing it up and over the sprawling efforts of the goaltender for the all-important 1-0 goal.
Jacob Trouba nearly brought the game back on even terms after Blake Wheeler made a wonderful play to keep the puck in at the line, but the defenceman’s shot from the dot struck the glove-side goalpost, keeping the Blues in front.
Then it was Pavelec’s turn.
On a late-period power-play chance, the Blues should have taken a 2-0 lead, but the veteran stood tall. Diving across, Pavelec made the save of the season, robbing TJ Oshie with a beautiful, backhanded glove save, keeping the Jets within one.
“It’s huge. Every win is huge. Two points is two points,” Pavelec said. “We were down in the third period but we kept pushing. It’s a big win for us.”
At the other end, the chances kept coming. First, it was Scheifele dancing his way in before being denied in tight by Elliott. Then, with under a minute to play in the period, Matt Halischuk did his best to swat home a loose puck in the crease, but after a frenetic play down by the goal line, the bumpers kept the puck at bay.
“Resilient,” Jets defenceman Tyler Myers, who played a game high 29:02, said post-game. “Ever since Staff and I got moved here, that’s one thing I noticed right away. There’s no quit in this group. It makes for a fun game to play.”
The Jets extended to a 21-18 lead in shots, a 37-17 advantage in 5-on-5 shot attempts and 18-7 in scoring chances after 40 minutes.
In a maddening continuation of the oh-so close variety, Michael Frolik rifled a shot off the post to begin the third period. Five minutes later, Mark Stuart did the same.
Then, the moment 15,016 had all been waiting for. Slithering down his off wing, Stafford delivered a backhand shot short side on Elliott, making it a 1-1 game at 13:16.
Seconds later, Pavelec came up huge – again – stoning Jaden Schwartz with an enormous left pad save. MTS Centre was shaking the curbs off Donals and Hargrave.
“You can’t say enough about the fans here,” Stafford said. “They’re behind us and we feed off that. It pushes us to go even further.”
“The energy in the building grew as the game went on,” Maurice added. “With every post that we hit, you could feel it. I think it’s a very important part of us having success tonight. I’m not worried about our team playing over the edge in energy. We spent everything we had and we needed the fans to be as great as they were. That had a lot to do with us playing so well for so long.”
The Jets are now 14-7-4 against Central Division opponents this season.
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.coM