Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel made it clear before Saturday’s game -- “There are no excuses. It’s time to start winning here.”
And they did.
The Jets managed to pick up just their second win of the season by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 5 to 3 before another frenzied crowd at the MTS Centre.
“We started to play with some urgency,” Noel said after the game. “It’s nice to just cash in on a win. The way it was going, you just take anything....It puts us back on track.”
The win marked the most goals the Jets have scored in a game this season and it came thanks to some strong play from a pair of forwards who have been the team’s stalwarts so far -- Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood. The victory also came despite a good showing by Carolina’s young star Jeff Skinner who had a goal and two assists, giving him nine points in total so far this season.
It did not look good for the Jets at first. The team got off to a sluggish start and Carolina made them pay. Hurricane forward Jussi Jokinen poked the puck into the Jet goal just 4:40 into the game after shot from Chad LaRose had Jet goaltender Ondrej Pavelec scrambling.
Two minutes later another scramble in front of Pavelec led to a goal by Skinner. It wasn’t clear if the puck went in off a skate but after review the goal stood.
The Jets appeared demoralized and headed for another bleak night. Noel moved quickly to shore things up by pulling Pavelec, whom the coach had been praising this week for his outstanding play.
“It just needed to be done, just the way we were going,” Noel said after the game. “You just go on your instinct and that was my instinct, two goals on four shots.”
The change seemed to turn the tide and spark the Jets.
“Sometimes that’s all it takes,” defenceman Mark Stuart said after the game. “You feel bad as a player that you didn’t play well enough and the first guy got pulled and it’s not his fault. So you want to make sure you play better in front of the second guy.”
Carolina helped the Jets with some sloppy play that led to four penalties late in the first period. That handed the Jets a quick series of power plays. Normally that wouldn’t pose much of a threat since heading into the game the Jets had scored just 2 goals in 25 power plays, putting them 27th in the league.
But the Jets' power play miraculously came to life and the club tied the game in the first period on two of the Hurricane penalties -- one on a hard long shot by Alexander Burmistrov that hit the top corner of the net and the other on a nice pass from Antropov to Wellwood who fired the puck into a wide open net. Wellwood’s goal came with just two seconds left in the opening period.
The Hurricanes didn’t recover and their goalie Brian Boucher, who was starting in place of Cam Ward, began to look shaky. He let in two long shots in the second period, the first by Jet forward Jim Slater the second from the blue line by Andrew Ladd. Then he failed to make it to the side of the net fast enough and Jet forward Evander Kane popped the puck in for his first goal of the year. Boucher ended up stopping only 19 of 24 shots he faced in the game.
Hurricane coach Paul Maurice called a time out to try to settle his team, as the crowd chanted Boucher’s name.
“The one thing that you couldn’t do with the situation that you faced was get into the penalty box,” Maurice said after the game. Referring to Boucher he added: “I don’t think anything was going for him tonight. We didn’t do him any favours.” He added that he never thought of pulling the goalie.
The time out didn’t seem to work and the Jets kept up the pressure. By the end of the second, the Jets were up 5 to 2 and outshooting the Hurricanes 19 to 12.
Even better for the Jets, they were finally getting inspired play from Kane, Ladd and Blake Wheeler who had largely been absent in the first few games. And they were winning face offs. Coming into the game, the Jets had been worst in the NHL on face offs, winning a miserable 44.1 per cent. But on Saturday they won 61 per cent, while Carolina won just 39 per cent.
The big question heading into the third period was could the Jets hang on? The team had been atrocious at maintaining leads and coming into the game the Jets had been outscored 8 to 1 in the third period.
The collapse looked imminent early in the third when the Jets failed to clear the puck from behind their goal and Carolina’s Tumo Ruutu shot it behind Mason to make it 5-3. Then the Jets took four penalties, including handing the Hurricanes a two-man advantage at one point late in the period. That could have spelled trouble since the Jets penalty killing is also among the worst in the NHL. But the team's penalty killing held up and the Jets even took the play to Carolina.
After the game Noel had high praise for Mason who allowed one goal on 19 shots. It was just the second time this year Mason had played in a game, the first a 4 -1 loss in Phoenix.
“He competes hard, he battles hard,.” Noel said. “He’s a real battler and he did a great job for us.”
But Noel wouldn't say if Mason would start Monday when the Jets face the New York Rangers.
Mason was beaming after the game and joked about the crowd chanting his name (he was also named one of the game's three stars).
“It was pretty cool,” he said. He added that the goaltending change wasn’t a reflection on Pavelec but was done to spark the team.
“It was a huge win there is no question about that,” Mason added. “To come back like that after a bad start was a big step.”
Carolina might have had an excuse for looking disorganized. The team was on the second game of a back to back, arriving in Winnipeg at 2 a.m. Saturday after losing Friday night in St. Louis 3-2 in overtime.
But Maurice said fatigue wasn't a factor.
“I always felt we were in that game,” he said. “I really felt that when we made it 5-3, we could win that game. I really did. The guy made some real good saves at the end, and that may have been the difference.”
Nonetheless, Carolina managed a 2-1-1 record on their four game road trip. The club has had to get used to a stretch of early season road games because a state fair takes over the grounds around the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. every October.
“We were ready to play,” Maurice said. We came out ready, the bench was running right, and it’s a difficult way to end the trip. But good for us to be unhappy with that --- .500 is the bare minimum on the road.”
The Hurricanes have been something of a nemesis for the Jets, and their predecessors the Atlanta Thrashers. The teams met six times last season with Carolina winning five bringing their total to 43-18-7-1 over the franchise.
“We’ve had some wild games,” Maurice said before Saturday's game, noting that four of last season’s games went into extra time.
The last time the Winnipeg Jets played the Hurricanes was during the preseason in September. Carolina's Ward stopped 36 shots and the Hurricanes won 4-0.
The Jets and Hurricanes play each other five more times this season, since the teams are both in the Southeast Division, surely the strangest divisional alignment in pro sports. They will all be crucial matchups for the Jets, especially if the team hopes to meet Noel’s goal of accumulating 96 points. Carolina finished just two points out of the playoffs last season with 91 points.
For weeks Noel had been trying everything to get his players going, even taking to poetry and motivational messages. In the dressing room Saturday, someone had written on a notice board: “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra to play it.”
Saturday at least, this orchestra was in tune.