Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel has said frequently that he wanted to learn how his team would handle adversity, pressure and what has become a frenetic race for the playoffs.
He found out a few things on Friday as the Jets beat the Washington Capitals 3-2 at the MTS Centre in a tight game that lived up to its billing as the biggest yet for the re-born Jets. The win gave Winnipeg 76 points, two back of Washington which holds the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have 11 games remaining and they will face each other once more in Washington next week.
"I thought that was a heck of a game," Noel said afterward. "It would have been a sad game to lose, really."
So what did he learn about his team on this night? "I learned that I like them as much as I liked them the last month and two months," he said with a smile. "I continue to like them."
He also learned something about the MTS Centre crowd, which was more boisterous than ever and generated a playoff-like atmosphere while making life as miserable as possible for the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin in particular. At one point the crowd repeatedly chanted "Crosby's Better" just as the big forward hit the ice.
"That's what you've got to like," Noel said shaking his head and laughing. "It's not the standard boo yea, boo yea. They come up with new things. They are just ruthless."
Ovechkin took the taunts in stride, joking afterward that it's all good for the game. "It's always nice when they talk about you and give you attention," he said. "I love it. It's great for the league. It's great for us. Everybody [debates]who's better and who's not. For me, it's a nice atmosphere, and I love it."
Both teams clearly knew what was at stake Friday and came out charging, for goals and each other. The Jets' Mark Stuart set the tone early by pummeling Washington's Marcus Johansson into the boards. The Capitals hit back with Alexander Semin nailing Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov. The hitting continued non-stop from there with more than 50 in total for the game (28-27 in favour of the Jets).
The Jets desperately wanted to score first, something that had served the team well at home where Winnipeg has been almost unbeatable this season. And Winnipeg did just that when Andrew Ladd picked up a loose puck at the 11:08 mark of the first period and snapped a shot by Washington goalie Tomas Vokoun. But the crowd barely had time to react when Brooks Laich tied the game 22 seconds later by re-directing a long shot from Johansson.
Winnipeg pushed the pace in the second, coming close when Nik Antropov, Evander Kane and Ron Hainsey all clanged shots off the post. The effort finally paid off when Antropov poked in a pass from Tim Stapleton, giving Winnipeg the lead once more. The Jets might have had more but couldn't capitalize when Washington took two penalties, giving the Jets a five-on-three advantage for 1:49 late in the period.
But then the Jets got caught on a penalty and Washington tied the game once more just 20 seconds into the third period on a power-play goal by Mathieu Perreault. Then at the halfway mark of the third, Dustin Byfuglien banged in a loose puck right in front of Vokoun to give the Jets their badly needed 3-2 victory.
Byfuglien, who also got an assist on the first goal, "likes to get out there and make a difference," Noel said. He joked about how the big defenceman has a tendency to remain on the ice far longer than he is supposed to. "He was resting in the crease, recovering in the crease," Noel said.
"When you've got a guy like that, as big as he is, as talented as he is and with his mind in the right place, you can't stop him and we saw it tonight," added Jets forward Blake Wheeler, who also got an assist on Ladd's goal. Wheeler added that even when Washington kept coming back, the Jets did not lose confidence. "Tonight I don't think that anyone ever for a second doubted that we weren't going to come out with a win," he said.
As for the fans and the madness of the crowd, Wheeler said even the record-breaking warm weather in the city made it feel like the playoffs. "Driving to the rink it felt like a playoff atmosphere, degrees and sunshine, a lot of Jets jerseys around on the streets," he said. "There's nothing better than cruising to the rink with your shades on and the sun roof down. You want to be playing hockey when it's warm out. We understand how bad the fans want it and I think they are starting to understand how bad we want it."
For the Capitals the loss hurt badly. Washington blew a chance to climb six points ahead of the Jets and potentially kill Winnipeg's playoff hopes.
"This ones stings a little bit more than a playoff loss, because a playoff loss, you forget about it and move on," said forward Troy Brouwer. "But this one, we really needed the points in the standings to try to get some separation between us and Winnipeg."
Added Laich: "We've got them again. We've got them again in a week. ... We definitely don't like them. They're right behind us, and we'll see them in a week."
Before then, the Jets play the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday at the MTS Centre. While on paper the Jets should be able to handle Carolina, which is seven points back of Winnipeg, especially at home.
"One thing will be clear, we will not take them lightly," Noel said. "And that's a really hard thing to manage because you can say all the right things but the emotional level might not be there. But you get to see what your team is about too."
A chance to learn another lesson.