Facing adversity "right square in the face", as Winnipeg Jets' coach Claude Noel put things this week, the Jets blinked Saturday and lost to the New Jersey Devils 2-1 at the MTS Centre.
The loss was the fifth in six games for Winnipeg and it marked another time the Jets came apart near the end of the game. New Jersey scored both of its goals in the third period and the Jets have now been outscored 12-1 in the third in the last six games. Overall this season, opponents have scored nearly twice as many goals as Winnipeg in the final 20 minutes (27-50).
"You've got to have that confidence in the third to just keep going and still make plays," Jets' forward Andrew Ladd said afterward. "You can't kind of shut down and just chip everything in."
Ladd added that "it's tough, obviously, losing a stretch of games. It's frustrating and guys are frustrated. But at the same time you've got to lean on each other."
The Jets have been reeling on many fronts lately, getting caught up in some drama over the poor play of Evander Kane and facing injuries to key defencemen Zach Bogosian and Dustin Byfuglien. And now the once dominating MTS Centre crowd seems to be growing impotent, as the Jets have lost two straight at home.
Noel looked on the bright side after the game, noting that the Jets played better than in the team's 2-0 loss to San Jose on Thursday. "I thought we played a pretty good game," he said. "I don't know if there is anything we would have done differently."
As for facing adversity, Noel said: "This is adversity and to me it's a good sign from a standpoint of what our team did. They were trying to go and deal with adversity straight on. We're not going around it. We're going straight at it. And that's really the message that we want to make sure that the players got."
The Jets did come out much more combative on Saturday than in recent games. They put New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur on the defensive early, forcing him to make a couple of big saves early on. Brodeur hasn't had a very good season so far, at least for him, and he had been pulled in the first period in the Devils' 6-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.
It looked at first on Saturday like Brodeur had his old groove back. He made a good save off a quick shot by Kane and poked the puck away from Blake Wheeler who was streaking in from the right side.
But then late in the first period he misread a long floating shot by Ladd. Brodeur stuck out his glove and watched the puck skip over his outstretched hand and into the net. That made it 1-0 Jets and the crowd came to life, raining down chants of "Marty".
Scoring first has been a key to Winnipeg's success at home this season. The team came into the game with a record of 14-6-2 when getting the first goal.
That record seemed in peril early in the second period when New Jersey started taking control. Only Jets' goalie Ondrej Pavelec kept Winnipeg from falling far behind. Pavelec made some brilliant saves including a diving stop on a shot by Devils' defenceman Henrik Tallinder after a two-on-one rush. That save had the crowd in a standing ovation and Pavelec followed it up with big stops on shots from Ilya Kovalchuk and Anton Volchenkov.
Amid the Devils' flurry forward Petr Sykora fired a long shot that hit Wheeler in the throat. He left the ice immediately clutching his neck and in obvious pain.
Noel said later that Wheeler was taken to the hospital to be assessed. A team spokesman said he was fine and he'll travel on the upcoming road trip.
Pavelec kept up his heroics in the third but was finally beaten by Devils' defenceman Kurtis Foster who fired a quick shot past the Winnipeg goalie after Dainius Zubrus won a face off in the Jets' end.
The goal added to the Jets frustration as Winnipeg had been dominating the faceoff circle during the game, winning 70 per cent.
"I was beating him pretty much all night," said Jet centre Jim Slater, who won 16 of 21 draws. "That one just happened to be just a tie up and it was just laying there and they were able to find the puck before our guys."
The Devils took the lead a few minutes later when Patrik Elias deflected a shot by 18-year old defenceman Adam Larsson, who stood out for the Devils all game.
"I thought that Adam Larsson had maybe his best game all year for us at both ends of the rink," said Devils' coach Peter DeBoer. "We knew we needed contributions from some different people tonight with some of the guys we had out of the line-up at the end of a road trip, and we got that...We didn't lose our composure at any point of the game, even when they got the first goal, so it was a good effort."
Added Brodeur: "[Larsson]is a good little player. He's creative. He's got that patience and that vision. At that age, you don't see many players making plays like that."
Elias had a chance to add another goal with barely two minutes left in the game when he was awarded a penalty shot after being pulled down by Jet defenceman Ron Hainsey. But he missed the net.
These teams meet again Tuesday in New Jersey and both appear to be heading in different directions. The Jets are now 20-19-5 with 45 points and beginning to fade in the playoff picture. The Devils moved to 25-17-2 for 52 points and are firmly in a playoff position.
After the Jets lost to San Jose Thursday, Noel worried about his team's morale. He wasn't as worried Saturday, saying that the club had responded much better.
"I'm certainly not going to beat up on my team. I'm happy with the way the guys played and responded," he said. "This isn't the time to start fragmenting all over the place and I don't believe that's happening. We're not far off, we're right there and we'll just keep going through."