The Winnipeg Jets couldn’t have asked for a better set up Tuesday: Win and they move into first place in the NHL’s Southeast Division and hold third overall in the Eastern Conference.
The Jets came into the game against the Philadelphia Flyers with almost everything going right. Winnipeg was on a three-game win streak, they had figured out how to score goals again and had beaten the Flyers three times this season.
Even better for Jets fans, the Flyers started Ilya Bryzgalov in net – a man loathed in Winnipeg for disparaging comments he made about the city last year, when he was with the Phoenix Coyotes.
(While he said nothing before Tuesday’s game, Bryzgalov was at the centre of a mini drama, when he left the morning skate after appearing to injure his hand.)
Maybe it was too perfect. And that’s why Winnipeg ended up losing to the Flyers 5-4 in overtime, with Jaromir Jagr getting the winning goal with just 43 seconds left in extra time.
The single point earned gives the Jets a total of 65, tied with the Florida Panthers for top spot in the division, but the Panthers have played fewer games so remain in first. The Jets also remained tied with Toronto in points, but the Leafs hang on to eighth place having played two fewer games.
The one point wasn’t much consolation for many Jet players. Winnipeg gave up the lead with just 10 seconds to go in the third and then lost the game in the dying seconds of overtime.
“A goal with 30 seconds left [in the third] we’ve got to find a way to win those,” said Jet forward Andrew Ladd. “It’s obviously a tough one to swallow. It’s a game we should have had.”
The loss also ruined the outstanding performance of Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec who made 50 saves including a remarkable grab in mid air on a shot by Flyer forward Jakub Voracek late in the third period.
“Right after the game I kind of went up to [Pavelec]and you could tell how frustrated he was,” Jet forward Tim Stapleton said after the game. “I think when we were up 4-3 [late in the third] we kind of just focused on playing defensively and just trying to get the puck out. We weren’t really focused on scoring and maybe that kind of killed us too. We weren’t playing to win we were playing not to lose and sure enough they scored one late and then they won in overtime.”
For the Flyers, the win was a badly needed effort in a month that has seen Philadelphia go 4-5-1, their worst month of the season so far.
“I really liked our game,” coach Peter Laviolette said afterward. “And I’m really proud that the guys kept coming, and pumping, and it was one of those gutsy efforts that you look back on and might have been one of our best – toughest – wins of the year. You know, we keep fighting and keep pushing to get the two points.”
Laviolette wanted his players to come out strong Tuesday and stay out of the penalty box. They did that for the most part and so did Winnipeg.
That made for an exciting back and forth game that saw five lead changes.
It all began with the MTS Centre crowd getting on Bryzgalov, chanting his name repeatedly right after the puck dropped.
The Russian joked after the game that he thought the crowd was cheering for him.
“It was nice to hear [them]cheering, ‘Ilya, Ilya’. I never heard that before anywhere. When 15,000 people support you, it’s very impressive,” he said adding that his hand was fine. “Here they cheer me. In Philly, they boo me.”
The Jets opened the scoring at 12 minutes 31 seconds, with Dustin Byfuglien firing a booming slap shot from the point while on a power play. The Flyers responded less than four minutes later, as Claude Giroux picked up a rebound and smashed a backhand shot by Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
The Flyers took the lead barely one minute into the second period, as Scott Hartnell scored on a power play. But the Jets came back with Ladd scoring at 7:52 on what looked at first like a disorganized power play.
Ladd scored again a minute later to make it 3-2, and the MTS Centre gathering rained down chants of “Ilya.” But as the period wound down, the Flyers regained control and Maxime Talbot tied it up again.
The Jets has a golden chance early in the third, as Bryzgalov lost track of the puck and ended up sprawling out of his net. He also lost his stick on the play and Flyers centre Daniel Brière got called for tripping. Evander Kane scored seconds into the ensuring power play, and the MTS Crowd could barely contain itself, cheering Kane and jeering Bryzgalov. It looked like it was all over and Winnipeg fans could taste first place.
But then with just 10 seconds left in the third, Wayne Simmonds tied the game on a scramble in front of Pavelec. The ageless Jagr ended it all, scoring with 43 seconds left in overtime.
“We have four lines and they all can score goals,” Jagr said afterward. “You have to make the other team tired, you know because every line can score. That’s what made us dangerous the first half of the season. Any line you put on the ice, they can score. Then we kind of switched with a lot of injuries but we have to go back to that. It doesn’t matter how many they score against us because we know we can score a lot of goals.”
Jets coach Claude Noel looked on the bright side afterward and had high praise for his goaltender. “Pavelec was unbelievable,” Noel said. “You can win championships with goal tending like that.”
There were many other positives for Winnipeg. Their power play, which had been horrific recently, scored three times. And they came back after losing the lead three times, showing some resilience that had been largely absent not that long ago.
“I’ve got a real unhappy group in there,” Noel said referring to the players. “They are really disappointed.”
Then he added: “How demoralized do you want to get? What do you want to do? Go home and put the knives and ropes away? What are you going to do? There’s another day tomorrow...I’ll take the point. I’ll take what I can out of it. We’ll learn. We’ll do the necessary teaching that we need to get done and we’ll go from there. That’s all we can do.”