The Winnipeg Jets have been away from the MTS Centre so long they probably didn’t recognize the sound of people cheering for them.
The Jets played the Florida Panthers at home Thursday after two weeks on the road, long enough for two European prime ministers to be ousted, one more debt crisis to emerge and Winnipeg to open a new airport. The Panthers were one of three teams the Jets beat on their seven-game odyssey, albeit in a shootout and thanks entirely to a lucky bounce.
But there was no luck Thursday and the friendly surroundings weren’t nearly enough as Florida easily won 5-2. The Jets haven’t won in four games and are now 5-8-3 with 13 points.
Jet coach Claude Noel didn’t hide his anger after the game, chastising his players for listless play in the first two periods that put them behind 4-0. The team came on in the third, outshooting Florida 17-5 in that period and scoring twice, but it wasn't nearly enough.
“As far as the game goes, didn’t enjoy the game. We played poor for a good portion of the game,” Noel said afterward. “We had very few good players in the first period, very few in the second. What did we have, 10 shots after two periods? There was a gameplan in place, I thought we would be better and we weren’t. We wanted to be physical, we wanted to use speed. They got on the board early, they sat back and we watched them play. We turned pucks over, we did all the things that we didn’t need to do.”
Winnipeg has had two constants in the last six games - taking a multitude of penalties and playing in front of some outstanding goaltending by Ondrej Pavelec.
On Thursday the Jets addressed the penalty problem somewhat, taking four in the game. That was one less than their season average and a far cry from the 14 they took Tuesday in a loss to Buffalo. But it didn’t do them any good as the Panthers took advantage anyway, scoring on two power plays and netting another when they pulled goalie Jose Theodore just as the Jets were about to be called for a penalty.
Then Pavelec’s play slipped. Florida’s Kris Versteeg scored on the Panthers’ first shot on goal, popping in a rebound after a shot by Tomas Fleischmann. Versteeg added another a few minutes later and by the end of the first period Pavelec had let in two goals on five shots. He let in two more in the second on 10 shots and then got pulled in favour of Peter Mannino, who had been called up from the Jets farm team recently due to an injury to regular backup Chris Mason.
There were “bad bounces everywhere,” Pavelec said after the game. “But I don’t think we played hard enough to be successful.”
When asked if the Jets could take any comfort from their play in the third, Pavelec said: “No. We say that all the time. You want to play all 60 minutes and win the game.”
Noel was even more blunt about his goaltender’s play: “He was no worse than anybody else. He was the same as everybody else. We were not good from the goaltender on out. What do you want me to say?”
He paused and added: “It was a poor performance by our players. It’s that simple.”
The Jets showed signs of life at times. The scored two quick goals in the third, including one on a power play. They also got the crowd excited with several hard checks, including one by Kenndal McArdle that flattened Versteeg.
But for the bulk of the game it was all too clear that the Jets just aren’t up to playing a decent team like Florida when it’s clicking. The Panthers simply dominated every aspect at times, holding the Jets to just four shots on goal in the first period. During one stretch of 23 minutes and 27 seconds over the first and second periods, the Jets didn’t get a single shot on goal.
“The first 40 minutes, we just weren't skating. We were sitting around watching,” said Andrew Ladd, who scored the Jets' second goal. “They are a fast team, they like to play an up-tempo game, we just stood around and watched them.”
Panther coach Kevin Dineen said his team was expecting the Jets to come out strong.
“They came out with a ton of energy. They came at us hard, we absorbed that. We scored that first goal, the game settled down, and I liked our game from then on,” he said after the game. “We were ready for what they did in the third period. They pushed hard, and I liked our response to that push. I just liked our overall game tonight.”
The Panthers’ line of Versteeg, Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss was outstanding, flying past the Jets constantly. Coming into the game that line had accounted for 15 of the Panther’s 38 goals. They played a role in all four goals Thursday with Versteeg getting three and adding one assist.
It was Versteeg’s first NHL hat trick and the first he’d had since playing as a junior.
“It's been a long time, but it was a lot of great work by the guys,” he said after the game. “The linemates get you the puck in areas to score, and I was just a fortunate recipient today.” He now has eight goals and nine assists so far this season for 17 points.
Panthers defenceman Brian Campbell had a more cautious assessment of his team’s play.
“Sometimes it’s tough when you get up 4-0. You want to keep that lead and you want to play safe,” he said. “You’re on the road and you want to get those two points and get out. For us playing safe doesn’t seem to be working for our team. It gets us on our heels.”
Florida is clearly gelling after going through a massive overhaul last summer that saw more than a dozen players join the team including Fleischmann, Versteeg, Theodore and Brian Campbell. Head coach Kevin Dineen is also a new addition along with assistant Craig Ramsay, who coached the Jets last year when they were the Atlanta Thrashers.
Dineen spent weeks trying to blend the team’s chemistry, foregoing typical team-building exercises during the preseason in favour of letting his new troops just get settled in south Florida. The results were mixed at first, but Florida has come together and earned at least one point in eight of their last nine games. The Panthers are now 8-4-3 with 19 points.
“I just liked our game and our composure,” he said Thursday after the game. “We've got a good road record, and we take pride in that.”