If there was ever a game set up for the Winnipeg Jets to win, it was Saturday’s match with the New Jersey Devils at the MTS Centre.
The Devils had played in Minnesota the night before, they’d lost three straight and their venerable goalie, Martin Brodeur, was faltering. Meanwhile the Jets hadn’t played in two days, they’d been home for a week and they were coming off an impressive 1-0 win over Phoenix.
Winnipeg did manage to cash in, but it took some last minute heroics by defenceman Mark Stuart who scored a fluky goal with just 6:47 left in the game to pull off a 4-2 victory.
“I thought the game was a really heavy game for us,” Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said afterward, referring to the notable size advantage for New Jersey. “It looked like it was tough handling their size and their speed. It was tough handling the puck and the play with their weight.”
The Jets came out strong, eager to exploit their advantage. And it worked. Evander Kane scored less than two minutes into the game when he tipped in a shot from the point by Dustin Byfuglien, who rarely passes up an opportunity to shoot. It was Winnipeg’s first shot on goal and the crowd quickly mocked New Jersey goalie Johan Hedberg, who started in place of Brodeur. Hedberg is well known in Winnipeg for his seasons with the old Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. That notoriety brought a steady stream of “Hedberg” chants which only stopped, briefly, when the announcer urged the crowd to salute Hedberg’s tenure with the Moose. After a short cheer, the jeering continued.
After the game Hedberg brushed off the chants and jeers.
“It was exciting,” he said. “I'm happy Winnipeg got a team back. You can tell the fans are with them. It's an exciting building.”
Hedberg’s play improved as the game went on and Winnipeg once again had trouble hanging on to a lead.
Just four minutes after Kane’s goal the Devils silenced the crowed when Adam Henrique snapped a hard shot by Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec. The goal came after a nice series of passing led by Ilya Kovalchuk, who returned to the Devils’ line up recently after missing five games last month because of groin injury. Kovalchuk said before the game that he was completely recovered and it showed. He has points in four straight games and he looked magical at times Saturday, skating circles around Jet players and setting up several scoring chances.
The Devils kept up the pressure into the second period, with only Pavelec keeping the Jets from falling behind. He made three key saves during a Devil power play early in the period to bail out his team.
But Pavelec could only do so much when the Jets went down two men on penalties to Jason Jaffray and Andrew Ladd, who tripped Hedberg as he tried to clear the puck. The Devils’ Patrik Elias scored quickly on a shot from a strange angle. That gave the Devils a 2-1 lead.
The Jets managed to come back during the remainder of the power play, thanks to a questionable decision by Hedberg. He made an ill-advised clearing pass to Kovalchuk who mishandled the puck just as Jet forward Bryan Little was bearing down. Little snapped up the puck and fired it over to Alexander Burmistrov who popped it into an open net. It was the Jets’ third short-handed goal of the year and tied the game at two.
“Little gave me a really great pass and I just needed to put my stick on the puck,” Burmistrov said after the game. He added that he played with more intensity after absorbing a hard check earlier in the game. “Something happened with me and I’m mad. I think somebody hit me right in the head. That was it,” he said with a smile.
Noel said Burmistrov’s goal was a turning point. “That was huge for us because at that time the momentum was really shifting to them,” he said.
Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer, who had six relatives from Manitoba at the game, could only shake his head at the shorthanded score. “I don't have an excuse or reason for it,” he said after the game. “If I had a drill for shorthanded goals, I would do it.”
The Jets kept up the momentum in the third but got a scare when Kane crashed hard into the boards after racing away on a breakaway. He was poke checked by Devil forward David Clarkson who made a desperate dive and they both hit the Devils’ net and the boards. Kane returned shortly afterward showing no ill affects. After the game he said his leg felt numb for a spell but suffered no damage.