Third place in the Eastern Conference. That’s the improbable position the Winnipeg Jets find themselves in today after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday and getting some help from the Minnesota Wild.
The Jets easily got by the depleted Lightning 4-3 at the MTS Centre, giving Winnipeg 67 points. The win, combined with Minnesota defeating Florida 3-2 in a shootout, handed Winnipeg top spot in the Southeast Division and automatic third place overall in the Eastern Conference.
Just think, if this holds up Winnipeg would have home ice advantage against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which has 73 points, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hard to believe, and maybe hard to fathom, but for now anyway that’s the reality of the Eastern Conference.
The Jets have clearly never ranked this high all season and fans at the MTS Centre let out a roar when they saw the score in Florida, which has 66 points.
Now the question is how long can the Jets stay here?
Winnipeg has been almost unbeatable at the MTS Centre, winning three of their last four games at home and scoring 17 goals along the way and allowing 11. And the Jets have four more home games coming up, starting with St. Louis on Saturday.
But then comes March and Winnipeg plays seven of 14 games on the road, including games in Vancouver and Pittsburgh. The Jets are 11-17-4 away from home this season, compared to 19-9-3 at home.
Winnipeg has also played more games than Florida as well as every other team currently in a playoff position in the East. And if it falls out of first in the Southeast, cracking the top eight in the East is much harder given the logjam with Toronto and Washington, which have 65 and 63 points respectively.
But for now anyway, Winnipeg can enjoy the limelight, the rarefied air and dream of the playoffs.
“I’m happy to say that we’re first in the division,” head coach Claude Noel said after the game. “We’ve got games in hand, they’ve got games in hand. But I’m happy that we are there. I’m happy we're third in the conference, don’t know how long it will [last] but I thought we played a pretty good game. There were some bumps at the end.”
For all but the final few minutes, Winnipeg had its way with Tampa Bay on Thursday, scoring just seven minutes into the game, on a goal by Andrew Ladd, and adding another from Tanner Glass before the first period was half over.
The Jets started the second with two power-play goals in the first four minutes, by Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. It was quite a turnaround. Only days ago Winnipeg seemed incapable of scoring on the power play at all, going 0 for 12 up to Sunday. But the Jets have now scored on seven of eight in the last three games.
Byfuglien’s goal also sent Tampa goalie Mathieu Garon to the bench, having allowed four goals on 18 shots. In came Dwayne Roloson, whose record was worse than Garon’s this season. Tampa could only muster six shots on goal in the second period and finished with 25 shots overall, compared to 34 for the Jets.
Winnipeg then started cruising in the third and paid for it.
Tampa Bay’s Steve Stamkos scored on a power play, thanks to a nifty between-the-legs pass by Ryan Malone. The Lightning added two more goals in the final minute of the game, by Teddy Purcell and Martin St. Louis. The second goal came with just nine seconds left.
Noel waved off the last minute letdown, saying he wasn’t going to focus on any negatives Thursday night. “We played solid for a good period of time, we got up four nothing and I thought that was good,” he said tersely when asked about the last-minute goals. “We’re going to deal with it. We’ll move forward. We’ll learn from it.”
Several Jets players also declined to let Tampa’s dying effort dampen the victory.
“Whatever. That’s two points,” said forward Blake Wheeler. But he also recognized that the Jets can fall out of the playoff picture just as quickly as they went in. “We can’t sit back and take a photo and say, ‘Hey we’re all set.’ It’s going to take this kind of hockey for the next 19 games to make the playoffs.”
For Tampa Bay the loss was a serious blow to the team’s playoff hopes. Tampa had won three straight coming into Winnipeg and the team was just five points back of Winnipeg despite recently losing three players to trades, Dominic Moore, Pavel Kubina and Steve Downie. The Lightning were also playing without Vincent Lecavalier due to a hand injury.
“I guess we're allergic to this place,” coach Guy Boucher said afterward. “We had our two worst games of the year [in Winnipeg].”
Winnipeg has 19 games remaining, of which nine are on the road and eight are against Southeast division rivals.
“If we can gather some momentum and some confidence in this home stand, which it looks like we are doing right now, then I think that’s a good thing, that’s something we can build off of,” Noel said. “We’re not going to separate our shoulders being first in the division. We have played the most games in the league. We’re happy we’re there. We’ll focus on St. Louis.”