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.
Byfuglien nearly gave the Jets the lead when he took another one of his long drives and hit the cross bar halfway through the third period.
The Jets finally went ahead when Stuart drifted into the New Jersey zone and lobbed the puck at the net. Somehow it went in, just as Kane was standing out front jabbing at Hedberg's pads. The goal came while both sides were playing with four men because of offsetting penalties.
"Honestly I kind of ran out of room and just had to throw it at the net and got a nice bounce," Stuart said.
Kane added that he wasn't sure how the puck went in. He saw it briefly as he battled for it under Hedberg's pad. The goal was reviewed by the referees, for an unclear reason, but it stood up. Kane added an empty net goal to seal the 4-2 win.
For Kane the two-goal night boosted his total to 14 this year. He has become a completely different player from the start of the season when he couldn't score and looked outplayed many nights. Now he is crashing to the net constantly and regularly leads Jet rushes up the ice.
"I feel good," he said after Saturday's game. "I feel stronger."
Noel credited Kane's new-found confidence for his improved play.
"When you play like that, you come to the rink expecting to score and for example when you lack confidence you come to the rink hoping to score," Noel said. "And as simple as that sounds that's pretty much how it works, it's really between your ears."
For the Devils it was their fourth straight loss and it came despite a strong effort.
"We played hard," DeBoer said afterward. "I'm not going to chalk it up to bounces or anything else. It was a hard-fought game at ice level both ways. I liked the way we played for a third [game]in four [nights]and on back-to-back nights."
Both teams moved to .500, but in the wrong way. The Devils dropped to 12-12-1, with 25 points. Winnipeg jumped to 11-11-4 with 26 points. Winnipeg not only moved ahead of New Jersey in the Eastern Conference standings but is also third in the Southeast Division behind Florida and Washington.
"It's good to see when you are holding on to those one goal leads in the third period, it shows that your team is learning how to win," said Stuart. "If you look at the best teams in the league they get up by one or two goals they shut the door and that's it."
Noel wondered before the game about the real quality of his team. Were the Jets as good as they played Thursday in beating Phoenix or as bad as they were in losing to Ottawa two days earlier? "We had a good game last game, is this what we are?" he asked during a press conference Saturday morning.
He was asked for an assessment after the game.
"For me I really like what I see. They are a good group," he said. "They get along, they play hard for each other, they're checking, they're doing the things necessary for us to win. I'm happy and I think they are happy and we're all happy. You're happy, everybody is happy."
One of the big questions surrounding New Jersey has been the play of Brodeur. The all-star goalie, a veteran of 18 years in the NHL, is not having a great season. He has missed six games because of injury and has shared duties with Hedberg in seven others. And his save percentage is .879, ranking him 38th among NHL goalies.
Worse for Brodeur, he was pulled early Friday in Minneapolis after letting in three quick goals, leading the Devils to a 4-2 loss to Minnesota.
"It has been a tough year for me," Brodeur, 39, said before Saturday's game. "I think I've had some good stretches and lately -- especially the last two games -- a little tougher. I haven't played a lot. ... I'm not really used to that. It's a learning process for me not to play as much. I'm just kind of battling with it right now."
He said the injury had slowed him down somewhat. "I go out there and try to do my best and it hasn't been working out last two game."
As for getting pulled Friday after just eight minutes into the game, the second-fastest yank in his career, Brodeur appeared to take it in stride. "It happened quick, three goals on four shots or so and I got pulled. These things happen. It happened before and hopefully, I don't have many years left so it won't happen again but you never know."