WINNIPEG – Back-to-back victories by the Winnipeg Jets had begun to undo some of the damage five consecutive losses had done to their Stanley Cup Playoff chances.
But the Jets still owned minimal margin for error when they reached the halfway point of their six-game homestand Thursday. Tearing apart the Florida Panthers 7-2 at MTS Centre will help Winnipeg keep pace in the Eastern Conference race going into a four-day break.
The ninth-place Jets (21-19-2) began the evening two points behind the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals, who held a game in hand. A trio of teams -- the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and New York Rangers -- owned a two-point lead on the Jets as well.
The Senators, Capitals and Islanders each won Thursday to maintain that lead on the Jets. The idle Rangers and Jets are tied at 44 points, but the Rangers own two games in hand, leaving the Jets in ninth place. Winnipeg’s three-game winning streak ties a season high, but the Jets will not play again until the Tampa Bay Lightning visit on Tuesday.
"Something is going to jar loose," Jets coach Claude Noel said of the crush of teams struggling to stay above the playoff line. "You've got to win. There are no other choices."
Evander Kane scored pair of goals, his 15th and 16th, to tie Andrew Ladd for the team lead. Winnipeg used three second-period goals to turn the game into a rout. The Jets have scored 10 second-period goals in their past three games, and their 47 goals in the middle period lead the League.
"We've come out and wanted to bury teams early in the game and not wait around until the third period," Kane said, "and I thought we did a good job of that again. We've not only been talking about it, we've been doing it. Instead of talking, we're just doing it and that's good to see."
Along with the production from Kane and Ladd, it was secondary scoring, a major issue for much of the season, that helped to carry Winnipeg to a season-high seven goals. The Jets received goals from recent American Hockey League recall Aaron Gagnon and defenseman Grant Clitsome, who both scored their second goal in as many games.
"I think a lot of guys are playing well right now," Noel said. "It's contagious, but that's what happens."
Florida (13-21-6) had won four of its previous five games, but the Panthers had no answer for Winnipeg.
"Lately we've played really good hockey," said forward Tomas Fleischmann, who notched a goal and an assist, inside a silent dressing room. "[This loss] just kicks us back. I don't know. We have to figure it out in the dressing room and stop this bad effort in the second. We've got to learn from it and make sure we don't do it in our next game Saturday."
With a visit from the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins looming Saturday, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen vowed not to brush aside the loss.
"This is not one you set aside," Dineen said. "There are a lot of things that we have to learn from [on which] we got exposed. We've got to keep steps to keep improving."
Florida goaltender Jacob Markstrom and Winnipeg counterpart Ondrej Pavelec faced an early offensive outburst that had the clubs tied 2-2 by the 6:31 mark thanks to four goals in a 2:37 span.
Gagnon and Kane provided the Jets with two in the opening 5:04 that sandwiched a tally from Florida defenseman TJ Brennan. After Kane made it 2-1, Fleischmann erased the lead 1:27 later to extend his point streak to seven games.
Noel called his timeout and settled down his club. Ladd then put the Jets ahead to stay with 7:18 left in the first period, converting Bryan Little's centering feed. Winnipeg fired 17 first-period shots at Markstrom.
"We’ve got to be a tight hockey team defensively," Ladd said, "and I think that sets up our offense a lot of the time, so it’s important going forward here, especially [in upcoming games] against teams like Tampa Bay and Carolina, who have guys offensively that can put the puck in the net."
The Jets blew the game open with a pair of goals 28 seconds apart halfway through the second period. Little and Clitsome teamed to make it 4-2 on Winnipeg's second power play. Clitsome's goal at 10:05, his second in as many games, ended Winnipeg's 0-for-21 drought on the power play.
Dustin Byfuglien followed with a long blast from the right point that beat Markstrom over the left shoulder to make it 5-2. It became 6-2 on the Jets' third goal in 1:57 when Kane ended Markstrom's night, outracing Florida's Erik Gudbranson to a puck off the left boards and sweeping it past the goaltender.
"The second period, I think we started pretty well," Fleischmann said. "They just turned it on. That's it. That was the hockey game."
"When the big push came," Dineen said, "we didn't have a response for it."
Markstrom stopped 17 of 23 shots before he gave way to Scott Clemmensen, who made 11 saves in relief.
"We've all got ownership in this one from the net on out," Dineen said.
Pavelec, who made his 38th appearance of the season -- second only to Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators -- finished with 25 saves.
Gagnon opened the scoring at 3:54, tipping a long shot from Blake Wheeler. Brennan's right-side shot fooled Pavelec 52 seconds later. Kane trickled a shot past Markstrom 18 seconds after Brennan's goal, and Fleischmann tied the game at 2-2 with a left-side shot into a nearly empty net amid a scramble of players near Pavelec.
Nine seconds into a minor penalty to George Parros, Little's right-circle pass into the slot reached Clitsome, who pounded a low shot under Markstrom at 10:05. Chris Thorburn added a goal with eight minutes left in the third period, his first in 33 games.
The Jets head into their first extended rest period of the season. Winnipeg wraps up its homestand next week before facing a potentially crucial meeting with the Capitals in their second-to-last game of the season.
"I think that we're going to plan [for the break]," Noel said, "It's going to be about recharging the batteries. As simple as that is, there is going to be a lot of time where we can just get away from the rink. Just stay away."