The St. Louis Blues dampened some of the excitement the Winnipeg Jets have had lately about leading the Southeast division by beating the Jets 3-2 in a shoot out Saturday at the MTS Centre.
The Blues won despite getting out shot 42-16 and blowing a two-goal lead. St. Louis hasn’t given up that many shots all season and the Blues only won thanks to an outstanding performance by Jaroslav Halak. He made 40 saves and stoned all but Jet forward Blake Wheeler in the shoot out.
“They were shooting from everywhere” Halak said afterward, “Especially in the first two periods. But we were still able to stay in the game, and that's all you can ask for.”
The Jets still got a point Saturday, giving the team 68 and keeping Winnipeg in the running for top spot in the Southeast division and third overall in the Eastern Conference.
“I thought we played really well,” Jets coach Claude Noel said after the game. “To me the game that we played today is an identifying game, where we can sit and say that’s one of the better games I’ve seen us play. That’s our A game and now we know where the bar is.”
Wheeler in particular stood out for the Jets, scoring both Winnipeg goals, breaking up a Blues two-on-one and dominating just about every other player on the ice. By the third period the packed MTS Centre crowd was chanting his name. Wheeler now leads the Jets with 51 points and has earned at least one point in each of the last six games.
“I thought Blake Wheeler was the best player on the ice for both teams by far,” Noel said adding that Saturday was one of the best games he’s seen from the forward.
Wheeler gave credit to his line mates, Bryan Little and Andrew, saying the entire unit is playing well. “We’re having some success right now and we need to keep doing it the rest of the way,” he said after the game. “The only slight negative you can take from the game is that we didn’t get two points.”
When asked if he has ever heard his name chanted like that Wheeler replied: “Never. That was cool”.
Even Halak tipped his hat to Wheeler. “He got my number tonight.”
One of the subplots Saturday was the relationship between Noel and Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. The two worked together off and on for years, in the minor leagues and the NHL, and Noel said he learned much of his coaching techniques from Hitchcock. Saturday’s game was the first time the two had faced each other in the NHL.
“It was a well-played chess match. It was a tactical game,” Noel said. “Both of us were kind of watching and trying to do different things...That was the fun part of it, coaching wise.”
Hitchcock said he was just glad to leave town with a win.
“This was a very, very difficult travel situation that we got in, and I'm really happy that we won the hockey game,” he said referring to St. Louis' current six game road trip. “This is just the start of tough travel for us. So, any points that we get on the road are really gratifying.”
St. Louis took charge early Saturday, getting two goals in the first period by David Backes and David Perron. The Blues also used their size to push the Jets around early on. St. Louis out hit Winnipeg 20-7 in the first period with forward T.J. Oshie accounting for five.
One of Oshie’s hits on Jet forward Chris Thorburn led to St. Louis’ opening goal. After flattening Thorburn behind the Winnipeg goal, Oshie tried to poke the puck past Jet goalie Chris Mason. Mason managed to push the puck away but it ended up on the stick of Backes who was right in front and fired it in the net.
But the Jets came out of the period leading 16-6 in shots on goal and feeling decent about their scoring chances.
“After the first intermission we kind of re-grouped and [captain Andrew Ladd] kind of told the boys that we really wanted to get to the net and get some traffic,” said Mason.
The advice worked and Winnipeg took over the second period with Wheeler scoring twice and the Jets hammering Halak with shots. The Jets out shot the Blues 18-4 in the period and only Halak kept Winnipeg from winning.
Winnipeg also failed to score on two straight second-period power plays, something that had been working lately. The Jets had scored in seven of eight power play attempts in the four games preceding Saturday. But against the Blues the power play sputtered and St. Louis had the best scoring chance during one, when Scott Nichol and Barret Jackman broke free for a two-on-one. It was only broken up at the last second by Wheeler who raced down the ice and knocked away a pass from Nichol to his teammate.
The Blues nearly cost themselves the lead early in the third period when Alex Pietrangelo batted the puck out of the air and almost put it into his own goal.
Neither team scored in the third or during overtime.
That left it to Perron to put in the winning goal in the shoot out.
Noel said he was particularly impressed his team came back from being two-goals behind. “Two weeks ago we could have gotten demoralized really in this game. But we didn’t,” he said. “We re-grouped, we stuck with it, we got rewarded.”
Hitchcock said his club played far too conservatively with the lead.
“I think that we get a lead, and we're trying to run the clock out instead of winning the game,” he said. “It's something we have to discuss. You can't win on the road, you can't win anywhere when you're on your heels. When you get on your heels, it's really hard to get off.”
The Jets are now 3-0-2 in this eight-game home stand, picking up eight out of a possible ten points. And, the Jets have three more games at home, starting with Edmonton on Monday.