They, like the Winnipeg Jets, knew the stakes in what has become a nightly occurrence here in southern Manitoba.
It was the biggest game of the year – again. And – again – the Jets showed why they’re either going to make the 2015 post-season or die trying.
“We realize where we’re at and the excitement around our team right now,” Jets forward Blake Wheeler said. “We were excited to get back in front of our home fans again. They gave us an extra push tonight.”
The Jets never looked back after building an early lead, defeating the San Jose Sharks 5-2 amid a deafening howl on Tuesday night at MTS Centre.
Adam Lowry, Mark Scheifele and Andrew Ladd each had goals in the first 13 minutes of the game, while Wheeler added a pair over the final two periods.
Ondrej Pavelec did the rest, recording 38 saves for his second consecutive victory.
“We wanted it more than they did,” Pavelec said. “It’s a big win for us.”
The line of Wheeler, Scheifele and Drew Stafford combined for three goals and eight points.
With the win, the Jets (35-23-12) move back into a playoff spot, one point up on the Calgary Flames for the second of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference. The Sharks, who came into the night trailing the Jets by four, are now six points back of a playoff spot with 12 games to play.
“There were parts of that game in the second half we won’t be bragging about, but we needed the win and we got it,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said.
Right from the opening faceoff, the Jets were the better of the two teams, dominating the Sharks at every turn, resulting in a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Filling in for Bryan Little on the top line, Lowry opened the scoring at 1:10 as he beat Antti Niemi from an impossible angle – sneaking it between the pad and the goalpost – for his eighth of the year and first in seven games.
Converting a beautiful feed from Toby Enstrom, Scheifele extended the lead with a power-play goal at 9:39. With Sharks defenceman Justin Braun off serving a slashing penalty, No. 55 rifled a shot top shelf from the middle of the faceoff circle, giving the Jets a 2-0 advantage.
And they weren’t done – both the team and the ruckus crowd fuelled by the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.
Sixty-eight seconds into their second power-play chance of the evening, the Jets made it a 3-0 game with 6:59 to play as Ladd redirected a rocket from Jacob Trouba. Ladd now has 57 points on the year, two shy of the career-high 59 he put up back in 2010-11. Niemi was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots. Twenty-seven-year-old Alex Stalock came on in relief, posting 12 saves on 14 shots the rest of the way.
Five-on-five shot attempts favoured the Jets 15-11 after a lopsided opening frame.
“That changed the game for the rest of the night,” Maurice said.
The visitors got on the board at 1:06 of the second period as the team’s leading scorer, Joe Pavelski, capitalized on a rebound, hammering a shot past Pavelec for his 33rd of the year.
Pavelec was otherwise incredible. His best save of the evening came hot off the stick of Joe Thornton, whose backhand try was snared by the glove in tight.
“That’s what we need from our goalies,” Wheeler said. “We don’t give up a whole lot, so it can sometimes be a bit tedious back there. Tonight, (Pavelec) got a little more action than he did in Tampa Bay (16 shots), but when we needed him to make the stops, he made some big ones for us.”
Added Maurice: “We got great goaltending. … He had a terrible thing happen to him [in St. Louis] and he then showed all the toughness you need to know about a man. In that game in Tampa, he was really good. It was an easy decision to go back to him tonight.”
Spurred by the workmanlike efforts of his linemates down below the goal line, Wheeler restored the three-goal lead at 7:05, poking a shot through the wickets of the goaltender after a poorly guarded goalmouth scramble opened a lane. Scheifele and Stafford recorded the assists after a wonderfulshift, grinding the Sharks down physically and forcing them into a series of careless turnovers.
Wheeler added his second of the night and 22nd of the season with 11:48 to play as he finished off a cross-ice feed from Stafford.
“Those guys are buzzing right now,” Wheeler, who has five goals in his last six games, said of his linemates. “When Scheifs is skating like he is right now, he’s great to play with. Staff is so strong on the puck. He makes such strong, simple plays – he’s a great complement to the two of us.
“It’s going well right now and it feels good to click at this time of year.”
Stafford agrees. The 29-year-old now has five goals and 10 points in 14 games as a Jet.
“I know the type of player (Wheeler) is and the type of personality he has,” Stafford said. “I definitely have an extra appreciation [for his ability]. He’s a heck of a player and I’m going to ride this wave as much as I can playing with him. He’s fun to watch. He’s an exciting player and he’s been clutch lately.”
Pavelski added his second of the night with 2:25 to play, but it wasn’t enough.
LATE HITS: Dustin Byfuglien (upper body) was a game-time decision but did play. Tyler Myers (upper body) made his return to the lineup after missing one game. Myers finished the night with over 23 minutes in ice time.
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com