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Wheeler scores OT winner as Jets down Predators

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG – It’s called making a statement.

That, despite what Blake Wheeler and others have described as a “frustrating” season so far, the Winnipeg Jets are in full pursuit of a playoff spot.

Performances like the one we saw Thursday at MTS Centre are only bringing them closer. After the very team they’re chasing, the Nashville Predators, rallied with a three-goal third – including the game-tying tally with just 13.5 seconds to play – Wheeler scored the overtime winner 51 seconds into the extra period, lifting the Jets to a colossal 5-4 victory.

Dustin Byfuglien led the way offensively, recording his 10th-career multi-goal game to cap a three-goal second period as the Jets built a 4-1 lead.

The Jets will now fly to St. Paul, Minnesota, ever closer to that elusive wild-card spot.

Game on.

“I really liked our game,” Wheeler said. “We had some tough breaks around our net, they got some momentum, but that’s going to happen. They’ve got some great players over there; they’re going to find ways to score goals and they did.”

Wheeler’s heroics came on the heels of his emotional address to the media yesterday, where he suggested the Jets need show better from an “emotional standpoint,” and fully “buy in” to what the team and its coaches are preaching.

“I was honest,” Wheeler said. “It wasn’t premeditated to kick anyone in the rear. I think we need to be honest with ourselves. We’ve been honest with ourselves in the last 24 hours and you could see that pushback today. We had a great feeling in the room and a great feeling on our bench. Even 4-2, 4-3, 4-4, we still had a good feeling. That was a good sign for us.”

And now for the (potentially) bad news: Byfuglien left the game early in the third after being pulled down by Cody Bass. No. 33 left the ice in considerable pain, unable to lift his arm. Maurice did not have an update available post-game, but did say Byfuglien will travel with the team to Minnesota.

“It’s possible,” Maurice said of his playing status for tomorrow.

Twenty-four hours after being recalled from the Predators’ AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, Kevin Fiala drew first blood for the big club less than a minute in. The 11th pick in the 2014 Draft, Fiala quickly drained the rebound left by newcomer Ryan Johansen, who Connor Hellebuyck initially stopped in tight with the right pad.

With the puck ricocheting off the back bar, it was unclear at the time if the puck actually crossed the goal line; play continued – albeit briefly – before an offside call at the other end initiated the review, confirming the first of Fiala’s young career.

A shame, too, considering Hellebuyck came up with the save of the season immediately after, but it was all for naught.

After a quiet opening period, a three-goal second period put the Jets up by a pair.

Byfuglien went to work early in the second, scoring the first of two on the night six-and-a-half minutes in, following up on his own rebound and firing it under the goalie’s right arm. Nikolaj Ehlers was not credited with an assist, but he was instrumental on the play, doing a lot of the heavy lifting down low and on the half wall, giving Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba time to work up top.

The Jets took a 2-1 lead with a power-play goal at the nine-minute mark, with the man of the hour – Wheeler – manoeuvring through the defence before dishing off to Bryan Little, who wired a shot past Pekka Rinne.

Byfuglien gave the Jets a two-goal cushion with a sensational solo effort, driving wide and wrapping the puck into the open side after fending off a pair of defenders.

“I really liked the game; loved the bench. Our compete was good,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “I didn’t feel after that first period that they’d gotten better than we did. I really liked the second. We got a bad break on the 4-3 (goal), but we didn’t fold. That’s a great sign for our group.”

Ehlers added what appeared to be the insurance at 5:58 of the third, snapping a shot high blocker on a breakway made possible by Andrew Ladd, who sprung the Dane with a beautiful tip pass in the neutral zone.

But the Preds weren’t done.

Johansen cut the deficit to two with a PPG at 9:01, while Ryan Ellis made it a 4-3 game just a couple minutes later, banking a shot off Hellebuyck and in. Neal tied it with 13.5 seconds to play, deflecting a long shot past Hellebuyck for the equalizer.

Three goals. Ten minutes. The Predators were firmly in driver’s seat, having outshot the Jets 14-6 in the final frame to earn back a point.

“The bench was right. The attitude was right, even in adversity,” Maurice said.

The Predators rang a shot off the iron early in overtime, setting the stage for a dramatic exit.

– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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