NASHVILLE, Tennessee – They’ve done it again.
Without two of their top players, Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little, the never-say-die Winnipeg Jets kicked off a four-game road trip in style, defeating the Central Division rival Nashville Predators in clinical fashion, 3-1, on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena.
Michael Frolik, Blake Wheeler and Drew Stafford (EN) had the goals, while Michael Hutchinson made 20 saves for his 20th win of the season.
With the win, the Jets improve to 33-21-12 and are now only one point back of the Minnesota Wild for the top spot in the Western Conference Wild Card.
“The effort was outstanding. … Everyone had a piece of that,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “I think that game gets won on leadership. Specifically, Ladd, Wheeler and Stuart. With what’s going on around the league – other teams are winning – and then coming on the road, that room has to get right before they go out to give that kind of an effort. Shift to shift, answering back after we gave up the tying goal. The coaches can say whatever they want before the periods and before games, but unless you’ve got those three guys in the room, you’re not getting that.
“It’s all about what goes on in that room. They’re teaching each other about how good they can be and what they can do, even under some adverse situations.”
With 5:33 left in the period, Nashville's Gabriel Bourque drove hard to the net and was run from behind by Adam Lowry. Hutchinson was on the receiving end of the collision and was down on the ice for several minutes as he tended to by Head Athletic Therapist Rob Milette. Hutchinson was back on his feet a few minutes later and was cleared to stay in the game.
“We had Pav stretching because I thought with the force of that hit, he was coming out,” Maurice said.
“But he went back in and was fantastic.”
Finishing off a 2-on-1 with Andrew Ladd, Frolik opened the scoring with his 15th of the year at 14:54. Powering through the offensive zone and making Predators defenceman Seth Jones look foolish in the process, Ladd then fired a pass across to Frolik, who made no mistake, hammering a shot past Rinne and extending his point streak to six straight games.
Considering the Predators are 22-1-4 when scoring first this season, the goal couldn't have been more critical.
Shots on goal favoured the Jets 7-4 after one period of play.
The Predators pushed back in the second and after evening up the shot count (9-9), Ryan Ellis brought the game back on even terms. Ellis’ long point shot deflected off a pair of bodies in front, fluttering past Hutchinson for the tying goal.
But we didn’t have to wait long for the visitors to respond.
The Jets went back in front 35 seconds later as Wheeler buried a rebound after a Tyler Myers point shot was kicked out to the bottom of the circle.
Talk about a momentum shift.
“You want to go out there, reassert yourself, try to get the momentum back and tilt the ice in your favour. I think we did a good job of that and got rewarded," Wheeler said.
The physicality picked up that point forward, too. Shortly after the goal, Ladd delivered a punishing hit on Cody Franson, forcing the former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman from the game with what appeared to be a right knee injury.
“Laddy, he led the way,” Wheeler said. “He’s our captain and he got us going tonight. He got us off to a quick start and we all followed from there. We all fall in line when he plays that well.”
The Predators nearly tied it up early in the third period when the team’s leading scorer, Filip Forsberg, engineered a beautiful three-way passing way, but the puck slipped off the stick of Craig Smith at the lip of the crease, preserving the 2-1 score.
Hutchinson did the rest, posting seven big saves in the third. Stafford added the empty-netter with 49.9 seconds to play.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “Pekka’s one of the goalies that when I was in the American League trying to make it into the National League, I really looked up to watched a lot of game tape. I tried to implement some of the stuff from his game into mine. It was something special and made be bear down a little more.”
“These are the games you want to be playing,” he said. “I remember how much fun it was last year being in the AHL playoffs and I’m looking forward to helping our team get that point this year.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com