The Winnipeg Jets managed to find their scoring touch Tuesday, sort of, and pulled off a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the MTS Centre.
“Well it wasn’t a Picasso but it was a win,” Jets coach Claude Noel said after the game.
“I didn’t think we gave them a whole ton. I thought we did some good things but it was a good win for us.”
Jets’ goalie Ondrej Pavelec was more blunt: “It would [have been] really bad if we lost.”
The Jets had been struggling on offence lately, netting just five goals in their last six games heading into Tuesday. Winnipeg also had lost two in a row and were quickly falling out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs arrived in town from the opposite direction, coming off a 6-3 victory Monday over the Edmonton Oilers, giving them five wins in six games and a strong hold on a playoff berth.
The Jets had hoped the return of their leading goal-scorer, Evander Kane, would help generate some offence. Kane missed seven games because of a concussion he thinks may date as far back as Dec. 20, 2011. Kane didn’t score and looked rusty at times, but he held his own on the ice and played just under 14 minutes.
Two goals isn't exactly the power surge Winnipeg was hoping for, but it was enough to win Tuesday. The Jets also outshot Toronto 29-18 and outplayed the Leafs for much of the latter half of the game.
“They did a good job in their zone but we didn’t direct enough pucks towards the net; we were trying to make an extra play, an extra pass and things like that,” said Leafs’ coach Ron Wilson. “We just didn’t scramble them up enough.”
It looked early on like the Leafs would keep on rolling. Toronto took the lead in the first period on a goal orchestrated by their power duo of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. Lupul fired a long pass to Kessel, hitting him in full stride and far beyond the reach of nearly every Jets player. Kessel quickly fired a wrist shot that easily beat Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec. The goal was Kessel’s 30th of the year.
But Winnipeg didn’t fold and came back three minutes later, on a flashy back-hand shot by Chris Thorburn that beat Jonas Gustavsson. It was just Thorburn’s second goal of the season. His first came last week against the Philadelphia Flyers, making him the Jets’ leading goal-scorer of late. (Considering that up until then, Thorburn hadn’t scored in 60 games dating back nearly a year – a clear sign of just how bad the Jets’ overall scoring has become.)
Noel joked afterward that he now calls Thorburn “sniper”. “It was good goal, nice to see him score again,” the coach said. “That’s good for him because he’s endured enough for the first 50 games. It’s nice to see him get some success.”
Thorburn said he was gratified that his line, which also includes Tanner Glass and Jim Slater, kept control of Kessel after he scored.
“It's really rewarding as a line. We went against Kessel's line, and we thought we did our job defensively, and we were able to get a goal,” he said. “It's definitely a challenge. Tonight was a case where they scored early on us and as a line we said, 'We've got to do better.'" So, we did that.”
The Jets went ahead in the second period for good on a goal by Bryan Little, marking the first time Winnipeg had scored two goals during regulation time in seven games.
The Jets looked far more aggressive overall, crashing the net frequently and firing more accurate shots on goal. The Leafs, on the other hand, faded as the game wore on and repeatedly had trouble getting out of their own end.
While Wilson praised the team’s penalty killing, which has gone 16 games without giving up a goal, he was less charitable toward Toronto’s power play, which failed on both chances. “We're doing a great job on the [penalty kill]. But our power play let us down," he said. "We didn’t really even get a shot on goal I think tonight and we had a couple of opportunities. They kept us on the perimeter but we didn’t move the puck as quickly as we need to.”
Added Leaf defenceman Luke Schenn: “I think tonight we were better than we were in here last time [the Jets won that game 3-2 on Dec. 31]. But I think we passed up too many shot opportunities and tried to get a little bit too fancy, make that extra play.”
Winnipeg is now 25-24-6 with 56 points – still not good enough for a playoff position, but within four points of the Washington Capitals, who lead the Southeast Division. Those two teams meet Thursday in Washington.
“We haven't been good on the road, but hopefully this win sets it in motion,” said Little. “We have another big road trip coming up, and we need these points. It's getting to that time where every game is going to be important for us.”
The Leafs (28-20-6) sit seventh in the Eastern Conference and head to Philadelphia to meet the Flyers on Thursday.
Before the game, Noel tried to play down his team’s scoring troubles, saying better overall play would produce goals. “For me, the focus is more how you play the game. The results will come,” he said.
He was right, on this night anyway.