WINNIPEG -- Only the inside of the Carolina Hurricanes' dressing room may really know whether a Saturday afternoon meeting with the Winnipeg Jets rose to must-win status.
But a March rut that has imperiled what had been a promising bid to win the Southeast Division certainly pushed the Hurricanes to play with desperation against the Jets at MTS Centre, resulting in a 3-1 win.
Carolina coach Kirk Muller acknowledged that a loss to Winnipeg would have damaged his team's aspirations of taking the Southeast Division – the Hurricanes' surest path to the Stanley Cup Playoffs if they can pass the Jets – but Muller said that his club was taking a big-picture view that began Saturday against Winnipeg.
"We had a different approach," Muller said when asked whether the Hurricanes (16-15-2) had treated the game as a must-win affair. "We looked at it more like there was 16 games that we had left. That's 32 points sitting right there. [Saturday] was not a do-or-die. For us, it was more if we can be a good hockey team for 16 games on a consistent basis, that's what we're after. We came in and started off here and had a good game."
The victory ended Carolina's 0-6-1 slide and nudged the Hurricanes within four points of the division-leading Jets, who have dropped consecutive games heading into a three-game road trip. Carolina owns three games in hand on Winnipeg (18-16-2) and moves on to face the Montreal Canadiens to begin a four-game week.
"It's a desperate time of year, and we need to catch [Winnipeg]," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal after contributing a goal and an assist.
Fresh off a 6-3 loss Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which they surrendered a third-period lead, the Hurricanes also began the afternoon with a 3-9-0 mark against Southeast Division opponents. Despite the loss Thursday, the effort against the Maple Leafs satisfied Muller and the Hurricanes, and they carried that play into Winnipeg, using an Alexander Semin goal 1:06 into the game to establish an early lead.
"I think we kind of stopped the bleeding, for sure, but I think it was important that our guys get some results from our hard work," Muller said. "They got rewarded with a big win. It's nice to see, because they worked hard for it. I thought we played a lot smarter. I thought we came in and had a really good road game here. We were focused. I thought we worked hard, played a real simple game."
The Hurricanes provided themselves some early life against an opponent that has struggled in the first period this season. Carolina put the Jets in a 2-0 hole on goals from Semin and Jussi Jokinen and carried that advantage into the first intermission. Opponents have outscored the Jets 35-18 in the opening period this season. Staal sealed Carolina's first win since March 12 with a goal 28 seconds into the third period that rebuilt a two-goal lead.
"What I liked about group," Staal said of a time that he equated to playoff hockey, "was we stayed focused, stuck to our game plan and didn't change anything and didn't get frustrated. That's important, especially with these games down the stretch."
Goalie Justin Peters, who began the season third on Carolina's depth chart, rebounded from consecutive games in which he allowed four goals after stepping in for Dan Ellis, who was injured March 21. Peters made 27 saves winning for the third time in eight appearances.
"Peters came up really well with a big game," Muller said. "I think he was a little disappointed with the outcome of the game the other night in Toronto. He bounced back. That's been our group pretty much all year. We've been finding ways to win and guys [have been] stepping up. Our leaders have been leading, but Peters had a great game and gave us a chance to win with the way he played in net."
Ondrej Pavelec returned to the net for Winnipeg after backup Al Montoya played in a 4-0 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Thursday. Montoya's start broke a streak of 11 consecutive starts by Pavelec, who made 25 saves and helped the Jets to hold off back-to-back Carolina 5-on-3 advantages late in the second period.
Despite the loss and the three games in hand that the Hurricanes own on the Jets, Winnipeg coach Claude Noel chose not to panic.
"That's why it's called a race," Noel said. "We're still in the lead, so the division race will play itself out. We had an opportunity to extend the gap. The division race is going to get played out. It's not what we had in mind."
After arriving Friday in Winnipeg, Muller met with his team and set the tone for his team's meeting against the Jets.
"It was simple," Staal said of the Hurricanes' pre-game mood. "Everyone kind of said the same thing -- 'Stay with that same effort.'"
Winnipeg cut into Carolina's lead in the opening two minutes of the second period. Evander Kane sped down the right boards on his off-wing and backhanded a pass into the Carolina crease that Olli Jokinen tipped past Peters at 1:26 for a 2-1 game.
But the Winnipeg's first goal and another lively MTS Centre crowd could not push the Jets to build second-period momentum. Trailing 2-1 in the second period, the Jets faced four Carolina power plays in a 7:15. The Jets held a Carolina power play that began the game on 3-for-12 roll over its past four games scoreless on six tries -- but the penalty trouble stalled any Winnipeg momentum.
"The amount of power plays they had -- you don't want to go through that every game," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "We did a good job of getting those killed off. But we had our top guys killing penalties, and they're out there every other shift. It's tough to keep that tempo up."
The Jets threatened several times in the opening 30 minutes. Dustin Byfuglien rocketed a first-period shot off the post, and Nik Antropov nearly beat Peters through the pads. Peters then stopped Bryan Little's second-period breakaway that kept the score at 2-1.
"He was huge for us," Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner said of Peters. "He's such a good team guy, and everyone wants to see him do well. He made some huge stops, especially early on. Then throughout the game he was big in big moments, so it was a great job by him."
Winnipeg survived Carolina's consecutive two-man advantages in the second period, but Staal's team-leading 16th goal gave the Hurricanes a 3-1 lead.
Tuomo Ruutu, who assisted on Carolina's first two goals, exited the game with what the Hurricanes reported to be a lower-body injury halfway through the first period after playing just three shifts. Ruutu played his first game of the season March 21, and his absence is the latest for a club missing goaltenders Ellis and Cam Ward, plus Justin Faulk and Bobby Sanguinetti on the blue line and forward Chad LaRose, who missed the game with the flu.