Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel has been saying for days that he wanted to see his team's "A game". He finally saw it and so did a sold out MTS Centre in Winnipeg.
The Jets came out strong, looking completely different from the team that had lost its first three games and managed to beat the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins 2 to 1. It was the team's second home game and perhaps a noticeably less hyped up atmosphere, compared to the season opener on Oct. 9, helped calm them down.
"We just played better," Noel said after the game. "We played with more urgency and more pizzazz..I think [the players]were fed up."
Noel credited part of the turnaround to a meeting he had Sunday with a group of six team leaders, including captain Andrew Ladd. The meeting came after the club returned from Phoenix and its third straight loss. "There was some chaos, a little bit, for them in some areas and so we cleared up the chaos," he said. "You want to be able to have a dialogue."
Jets centre Nik Antropov set the tone right from the start Monday by winning the opening faceoff and leading a mad charge down the ice with linemates Kyle Wellwood and Alexander Burmistrov. A couple of nifty passes later and Wellwood had put the puck by Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury just eight seconds into the game. That not only set a franchise record, but gave the Jets life they have rarely exhibited this season. Burmistrov, 19, has been one of the few Jets standouts so far this season and he looked even better against Pittsburgh. He pounced on every loose puck and seemed to have the Penguins constantly baffled. The Russian added another assist later in the first, by taking the puck away from Penguins defenceman Ben Lovejoy and firing a pass to Tanner Glass who scored.
After the game, Burmistrov joked that he speaks Russian with Antropov, who is from Kazakhatan, and Wellwood who is from Windsor, Ont. and played briefly in Russia last year. That helps the chemistry, he said.
The team did just about everything Noel had been asking, even begging for at times this season. They chased down loose pucks, limited turnovers and cut down on mistakes. They even fended off the feared Penguin power play, among the best in the league.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had warned his team about a fast start by the Jets, saying before the game that he expected Winnipeg to come out "real hard and real energized." His players either didn't pay attention or were completely caught off guard by the flourish.
The Penguins had their chances. Forward Chris Kunitz missed an open net early in the game and James Neal, one of the league's top scorers, flubbed an open shot when Jet goaltender Ondrej Pavelec mishandled the puck. Another chance came in the second when the puck slid across the goal line after Pavelec lost track of it.
Just about the only thing not working for the Jets was their power play, which has yet to connect this season. But that didn't matter since the Penguins, owners of one of the best power plays in the league, also failed to score on their opportunities.
Pavelec looked sharp for the most part. But after making a series of remarkable stops, Penguins defenceman Zbynek Michalek scored on a long shot from the blue line in the second period. Other than that, Pavelec made several saves that kept the Jets in the game, earning one of the three star selections.
"I think we had a great start," Pavelec said after the game. "I didn't play well in those first games, so I was trying to help the team to get the win and keep them in the game."
While not quite the atmosphere of the team's first home game on Oct. 9, Winnipeggers are clearly still willing to accept almost anything this year from their team, still stuck at the bottom of the standings.
On paper the game should have been one for the Jets to win, even against one of the league's best clubs in Pittsburgh. The Penguins, playing their seventh game, were without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as well as forward Tyler Kennedy. They had also come off a 3 to 2 loss in Buffalo on Saturday and were starting to face questions about whether they were fading from their remarkably fast start of 3-0-1.
The Penguins had also been relying largely on their power playing and penalty killing. They ranked near the top of the NHL in both categories and of their 18 goals scored this season, eight had come either with a man advantage or while killing a penalty.
The Jets head to Toronto and then Ottawa this week. They may be without one of the top defencemen, Ron Hainsey. He suffered an upper body injury and will be assessed Tuesday, Noel said. Another player, forward Evander Kane, is also injured and did not play Monday.