WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets kept themselves in contention for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 7-2 win against the Dallas Stars at MTS Centre on Sunday night.
The Jets' season-high seven goals helped them overcome two Dallas first-period goals 37 seconds apart. Winnipeg scored three goals in the first period before chasing Dallas starting goaltender Tim Thomas in the second and greeting backup Cristopher Nilstorp with three more goals to cruise to victory.
Winnipeg (31-29-9) broke a six-game winless streak (0-3-3) and won for the first time at MTS Centre since Feb. 27. The win pulled the Jets to within four points of Dallas (32-24-11) for the Western Conference's second wild-card spot. Dallas has two games in hand on the Jets, who departed afterwards for a road game Monday against the St. Louis Blues.
"It was good to build a lead and keep building on it," said Jets forward Blake Wheeler, who had four assists. "I think when you have a team down, you have to keep on them and not give them any life, especially with the players they have on their team."
Thomas made his third consecutive start and allowed four goals on 17 shots before Nilstorp made his season replaced Thomas 29 seconds into the second period. Nilstorp finished with 14 saves in his season debut. The seven goals allowed tied a season high for the Stars.
"It was more than just a loss," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "We got off our game. We had some terrible turnovers, and they really took advantage of it. [It was] tremendously disappointing. No doubt. I'm disappointed with the way we played."
With Ondrej Pavelec (lower body) out, Al Montoya started and stopped 25 shots for the Jets in earning his first win since Feb. 2. After the Stars' two quick goals, Montoya stopped Erik Cole and Ryan Garbutt on first-period breakaways.
Alex Chiasson and Tyler Seguin scored for the Stars. Jacob Trouba, Michael Frolik and Tobias Enstrom scored first-period goals for the Jets. Dustin Byfuglien added two goals and Olli Jokinen and Evander Kane also scored. Wheeler's four assists tied his career high and a franchise high and pushed him into the team scoring lead; Enstrom and Jokinen also provided two assists.
Trouba teamed with Wheeler to put the Jets up 1-0 3:11 into the game. Wheeler's forecheck pressured Stars center Cody Eakin to turn over the puck, allowing Trouba to take the puck and beat Thomas with a high shot for his eighth goal.
But Chiasson's 12th goal evened the game at 1-1 when he jabbed the rebound of a shot from Eakin under Montoya at 6:25. Seguin's 30th goal 37 seconds later off a backhanded shot from in close made it 2-1 Dallas. Seguin has scored five of his goals this season at MTS Centre.
But then Montoya and the Jets' offensive attack went to work. Montoya provided several key first-period saves after the two Dallas goals.
"You either go out there and make a big save or you let the mental part of the game get to you," Montoya said. "I'm a battler, and I like to think my teammates think the same of me. I responded and made a save, and [the Jets] responded greatly."
Frolik's 14th goal tied the game at 11:54. After Thomas failed to secure Frolik's first shot, Frolik scooped up the rebound and swept the puck past Thomas. Enstrom then gave the Jets their lead again at 17:03 with his eighth goal, one-timing a low shot through the pads before Thomas could set up.
"[It was] a really important learning process for a young team to have success in a big game, getting down early, and then coming back and being very good," Jets coach Paul Maurice said.
Wheeler set up Jokinen's 16th goal that made it 4-2, stripping the Dallas defense of the puck inside the offensive zone before reaching Jokinen with a pass. Jokinen finished the play and finished the night for Thomas 29 seconds into the second period.
After Dallas killed off the first part of a 47-second 5-on-3 power play for the Jets, Byfuglien put Dallas down 5-2 with a right-point blast through Nilstorp's pads on the man-advantage with 3:30 left in the second period.
Byfuglien poked a rebound over Nilstorp for his second goal and 19th of the season 3:14 into the third period. Byfuglien, a defenseman-turned-forward this season, has six goals in his past five games. Kane then broke an 11-game goalless drought, finishing breakaway at 7:33 for his 16th goal.
With the loss at Winnipeg and a 4-3 shootout loss this past Friday at home, the Stars have now recorded consecutive defeats for the first time since Jan. 10-12.
"We're not playing the right way," Stars captain Jamie Benn said. "These games are hard to win late in the [season]. We just got outworked.
"We probably don’t want to watch too much video of this game, because it's mostly bad, I'm sure. We've got 15 games left. We can't be worried about this one. We're still in a good spot. We've got to move on and get ready for the next game [Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Penguins]."
For the Jets, their six-game slide has left them struggling to remain in contention as the franchise attempts to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007.
However, Maurice admits that maintaining a positive dressing room during another March slump has been a challenge for him and his players.
"You can only keep their hopes up [for so long]," Maurice said. "It wears on you. It's a really good bunch of guys. They really do care, and you have to keep their spirits up when things aren't right, and you have to call them on the stuff that needs to be fixed."
With Pavelec out, the workload will increase substantially for Montoya, who has appeared in 22 of the Jets' 69 games this season. Another big test awaits the Jets in the form of the Blues. Montoya will be up against the NHL's second-best offense in the Blues, who have averaged 3.21 goals per game.
"This is huge," Montoya said. "We're going to enjoy this one and then get right back to work. Nobody is taking any games lightly anymore. The best teams are going to be the best teams. We're going to have to go in there and play that blue-collar game."