Blake Wheeler knows the Winnipeg Jets are still a long shot to earn the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference, but a decisive thumping of the team they’re chasing gave the club a glimmer of hope on Sunday night.
Wheeler had four assists as the Jets stormed from behind to beat the Dallas Stars 7-2, pulling to within four points of the eight-place Stars, although Dallas has two games in hand.
“We’re a little too far back to have statement games,” Wheeler said. “It was a good step for us. It was a good start to hopefully something good here. We’ve got to rally and string a bunch together now.”
The Jets (31-29-9) managed to snap a six-game winless streak that crippled their playoff chances.
“We’ve liked the way we’ve been playing for the most part,” Wheeler said. “The last three or four games we’ve actually played really well but it just hasn’t worked out for us, so to get the results is definitely gratifying.”
Dustin Byfuglien had two goals and an assist for the Jets, while Jacob Trouba, Michael Frolik, Evander Kane, Ollie Jokinen and Tobias Enstrom also scored. Jokinen and Enstrom each added two assists in the team’s highest-scoring game of the season.
Alex Chiasson and Tyler Seguin scored first-period goals for the Stars (32-24-11), who had earned points in their previous four games.
The Jets scored the next six goals after Seguin had given the Stars a 2-1 lead 7:02 into the game.
Stars coach Lindy Ruff thought his team had enough quality chances to have a bigger lead.
“It’s more than just a loss,” Ruff said. “We got off our game. We had some terrible turnovers and they took advantage of it.
“I thought they stayed with it longer than we did.”
Al Montoya, starting in place of the injured Ondrej Pavelec, survived a shaky start and finished with 25 saves on 27 shots, including one on an Erik Cole breakaway that could have given Dallas a two-goal lead.
“That goes back to experience I guess,” said Montoya, who upped his record to 11-5-3. “Being put in that situation several times, you’ve got a choice. You either go out there and make a big save or you let the mental part of the game bother you. I’m a battler and I like to think my teammates think the same thing of me.”
Tim Thomas started in goal for Dallas, but stopped just 13 of the 17 shots he faced and was pulled after Jokinen’s goal 29 seconds into the second period made it 4-2.
Cristopher Nilstorp, a 30-year-old with five NHL games to his credit, came off the bench and allowed three goals on 17 shots. The Stars lost regular starter Kari Lehtonen to a concussion on Mar. 8.
“I’m disappointed in the way we played,” Ruff said. “I’m disappointed in the composure. I didn’t think we showed enough resolve.”
After a wide open first period, the Stars mustered only three shots on goal in the second as the Jets built a 5-2 lead.
“It’s 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,” Maurice said.
Jokinen found himself all alone in front of the Dallas net after a pass from Wheeler and scored on a shifty deke to chase Thomas from the game.
Then Byfuglien blasted a hard shot from the point on the power play to make it a three-goal lead.
The defenceman-turned-forward scored again early in the third — his 19th of the season — and moments later, nearly became the first Jet to record a hat trick since the team relocated from Atlanta, but was stopped on a breakaway by Nilstorp.
The eventful evening for Byfuglien ended with him leaving the game with a lower-body injury midway through the third period. Maurice said he expected Byfuglien to be available for the Jets’ game in St. Louis on Monday night.
After Trouba opened the scoring at 3:11, the Stars took only four minutes to regain the lead. Chiasson poked the puck under Montoya after the netminder appeared to have control of a point shot. Then Seguin notched his 30th of the season after a pass from rookie Valeri Nichushkin.
Frolik tied it after a giveaway from Stars defenceman Alex Gologoski, and Enstrom deposited a pass from Wheeler past Thomas to give the Jets the lead for good.
The Stars are in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night and Philadelphia on Thursday before heading home. The teams have one remaining meeting, in Dallas on March 24.
Notes: The Jets were also without centre Jim Slater (lower body) and forward Chris Thorburn (ankle), who were both injured on Friday night in a loss to the New York Rangers. a The NHL announced that the Stars will host the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 9 to make up the game that was suspended on Monday when Dallas forward Rich Peverley collapsed on the team’s bench. The game will be 60 minutes, and will start with Columbus holding the 1-0 lead they had prior to the medical emergency.