Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel has been trying just about everything to get a spark out his team lately. He has juggled lines, called up players from the farm, gotten angry, philosophized and just hoped for the best.
It finally paid off Monday with the Jets looking better than they have all season and whipping the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 at the MTS Centre.
"I thought tonight probably was one of our better team games that I've seen us play," Noel said after the game. "I thought we were excellent all the way from the goalie on out."
Noel added that he had finally seen his players "A" game. "Now we know what our A game is. So that's now where the bar sits and now we say, 'Okay now we know what to reach for'."
He doled out praise to almost everyone including Dustin Byfuglien, the big defenceman who has been the target of fan unhappiness recently. Byfuglien got a goal and an assist Monday leading Noel to say this was his best game yet as a Jet. "He was really outstanding. He played with a lot of heart he played hard." Noel praised his line changes, his penalty killers and one of his called up defencemen Mark Flood, who scored his third goal in seven games. "He might go to the All Star game," Noel joked of Flood.
The praise was well earned. The Jets did just about everything right all night, and got some lucky breaks. They jumped out to 2-0 lead, killed off a pair of early penalties and pounced on every loose puck. Forward Evander Kane set the tone less than five minutes into the game with a hard shot from a long way off that beat Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson.
"Every time I shoot the puck I expect to score a goal," Kane said afterward with a smile when asked if he really thought that shot would go in.
Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec, starting his 10th game, made several key saves and got some help from at least three Tampa Bay shots that hit the goal posts. But unlike far too many previous nights Pavelec didn't have to carry the team. He still ended up stopping 30 of 32 shots. "I think this is one of the best games we have played," he said afterward. "Today, I had the luck [with the goal posts]and that's what I needed."
The Jets kept up the pressure, scoring two more in the second and getting out of several self-imposed jams. Defenceman Zach Bogosian took a double minor for holding and unsportsmanlike conduct in the second period, handing Tampa Bay a man advantage for four minutes. The Jets took two more penalties just minutes later, giving the Lightning a two-man advantage. But Tampa Bay couldn't capitalize and mounted little in the way of an attack. Credit the Jets penalty killing, which had not been productive lately. The Jets not only killed the penalties but had several scoring chances while down a player.
The lucky bounce came in the third when Jet forward Tim Stapleton tried a wrap around shot that looked liked it was going to harmlessly bounce across in front of Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon, who replaced Roloson in the second period after he gave up four goals on 22 shots. Instead the puck hit a leg and bounced in.
Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher had been worried about his team's poor starts on the road. Coming into the game Tampa Bay was 3-5-2 on the road, compared to 5-1 at home, and they had been outscored 17-8 in the first period.
Boucher gave his players Sunday off after a 3-0 loss in St. Louis the night before, hoping they would reflect on their bad play. It didn't work. They gave up two goals in the first and couldn't come back.
"It's a recurring theme for us. It's nothing new for us. We have to take care of it," Boucher said after the game. "They want to have success. They want to be accountable to themselves ... I don't believe in luck. You make your luck. That was the moment of the game that we could come back. We always believe we can come back, even in the third period, but tonight the fourth and fifth goal hitting our own guy's skate, that was tough to take, especially missing open nets."
The Lighning players met together without coaches for about 30 minutes after the game to thrash things out. "Obviously, something has to be addressed, and we did it. We took it upon ourselves. It's a good thing. It brings teams together," said forward Steven Stamkos, who got one of Tampa Bay's two goals. "The coaches can yell, scream, be calm, be patient, write on the board, not on write on the board all they want. It's us as players that go out there."
As good as the Jets played, penalties remain an issue for Winnipeg. Coming into the game the Jets had been shorthanded 81 times this season, highest in the NHL. The team took six more Monday, bringing that total to 87.
But that didn't matter too much Monday. The Jets looked like a completely different team, capable of overcoming just about anything, even their own mistakes.
"Enjoy the game tonight," Noel said with some caution. "Tomorrow's a new day."