They packed the MTS Centre early, cheered videos before the game started and then went wild when the puck finally dropped. It all looked and sounded just like the first game at the MTS Centre back on Oct. 9.
Back then the Montreal Canadiens ruined the Jets coming-out party by winning 5-1 in a blow out.
On Saturday it was the Tampa Bay Lightning that spoiled the Jets’ end-of-the season party, beating Winnipeg 4-3 in overtime. But unlike the first game, this game was among the most exciting of the season, ending with the Jets tying it up late in the third only to lose in the first minute of overtime when Tampa’s Teddy Purcell got his third goal of the game.
For a pair of teams with nothing to play for, since both have been out of the playoff picture for weeks, the Lightning and the Jets gave the MTS Centre faithful a rousing send off. A dramatic come back by Winnipeg, a heart-breaking overtime goal, a hat trick by Purcell and Tampa’s Steve Stamkos getting his 60th goal of the season all made this a memorable finale.
“For two teams that aren’t in the playoffs you are not going to find an atmosphere like that,” said Jets captain Andrew Ladd.
“I didn’t want to leave the ice,” added Jim Slater.
“It was unbelievable. I had goose bumps,” said Stamkos. “As a Canadian kid coming in here, all year this has probably been the best crowd aside from my [home town]fans in Toronto.”
Stamkos clearly looked relieved at getting his 60th, making him just the second player after Alexander Ovechkin do accomplish that feat since 1996. And it nearly didn’t happen. He looked lost for much of the first two periods and had his only good chance stopped by Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec in the second.
“You could see he was getting a little bit impatient,” Tampa coach Guy Boucher said afterward. “Not because he didn't score but because he missed so many.”
But finally at 3:29 of the third, Martin St. Louis sent out a perfect pass from behind the Winnipeg net, putting the puck directly on Stamkos’ stick. He didn’t miss.
“I think Stamkos [knew]that I was looking for him, and he pulled the trigger pretty well,” St. Louis said.
“I don't think it's going to sink in until after the season.” Stamkos said. “I was feeling the pressure. I was trying my best to not show it, to hide it. And when Pavelec robbed me on the chance in the second period, I was really focusing on trying not to get too discouraged.”
Pavelec said afterward that he could live with being on just about every highlight reel for the next many months. “It’s not fun but what are you going to do?,” he said. “He’s a great player. It was a really great shot. There’s nothing you can do about it. Good for him.”
Even the MTS Centre crowd, which had been booing Stamkos incessantly and chanted “No Goal Stamkos” at one point, gave the Lightning forward a standing ovation.
The other hero of the night for Tampa was Purcell, who got the first two goals of the game and then put in the game winner at 1:07 of overtime.
“I've never had a goal in overtime before since street hockey when I was 15,” Purcell said. “So it is a good feeling. It's kind of bittersweet not being in the playoffs, but to go out on a high note and get some confidence heading into the summer is nice.”
The Jets had some positives too, clawing back from behind on goals by Nik Antropov and two from Slater. His second came with just 53 seconds left in the third, tying the game at three and sending the crowd into a frenzy. But all hope for a miracle finish was quickly dashed by Purcell.
The Jets finish the season 37-35-10 with 84 points, just four better than the old Atlanta Thrashers had last season. Tampa Bay ends its season 38-36-8 and also with 84 points. Tampa will end up in 10th in the Eastern Conference, one spot ahead of Winnipeg which has one fewer win.
Boucher felt gratified his players stuck together through a rash of injuries and lost opportunities. “Through all the adversities this year, it's amazing how no fingers have been pointing at anybody,” he said.
Jets’ coach Claude Noel said he would focus on the positives of the game and the season.
“I do see some things that lead me to believe that we can be and hopefully will be a good team,” he said. “I would like it sooner than later but we’ll take one thing at a time.”
He added that he’ll take some time off, re group and start planning for next season. He’ll also watch the playoffs. When asked if he had a favourite to win the Stanley Cup, Noel demurred and declined to pick a winner. “I’d like to remain friends with the other coaches.”