WINNIPEG – Not even the most devout Winnipeg hockey fans could have predicted their Jets would be a first-place team as the regular season hit the three-quarter mark.
But they are.
The Jets scored two power-play goals in 72-second span of the second period to build a cushion that they needed to hold off Tampa Bay's third-period comeback in a 4-3 victory that moved them into first place in the Southeast Division. The Jets' first-place divisional standing also lands them in the Eastern Conference's third slot.
Winnipeg (30-26-7) is now 3-0-1 on a season-long eight-game homestand and has 67 points -- one more than the Florida Panthers, a 3-2 shootout loser at home to Minnesota. The Jets, who moved to Manitoba from Atlanta last summer, are four points ahead of Washington and seven points up on the Lightning (27-27-6), who had their three-game winning streak snapped. Tampa Bay is six points behind eighth-place Florida in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm happy to say that we're first in the division," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "I'm happy we're there. I'm happy we're third in the conference."
The Jets ripped Tampa Bay for two power-play goals in a 1:12 span at the start of the second period to split open a 2-0 game and knock out starter Mathieu Garon. The Jets' once-dormant power play, stuck in a 2-for-29 slump earlier this month, connected on its sixth and seventh consecutive power plays stretching over three games this week. The Jets extended their unbeaten streak to five games, which ties a season-high, and Winnipeg has rolled up 27 goals over their past seven games.
"Our net presence is way better," Noel said, "so that's really helped us. And we're getting shots to the net. The other big thing is confidence. [If] your power play has confidence. What happens is that they go out and expect to score."
Two goals from Andrew Ladd to go with singles from Tanner Glass and Dustin Byfuglien supplied Winnipeg's offense. Two nights after seeing 55 shots by the Philadelphia Flyers in a 5-4 overtime loss, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec returned faced only 25 shots. Byfuglien extended his point streak to four games, as did Blake Wheeler, who contributed two assists, and Evander Kane in picking up an assist. Ladd and Bryan Little have four-game point streaks as well.
But Ladd and the Winnipeg dressing room took a measured approach to leading the Southeast Division for the first time this season.
"You can't think about it," Ladd said. "It's nice to see the results and see where we are right now, but that can change day to day. Unless we keep winning, it's not going to mean much."
Winnipeg led 4-0 until Steven Stamkos scored his League-leading 43rd goal with nine minutes left in regulation. The Jets' third-period penalty trouble helped to set up Tampa Bay's comeback bid via two power-play goals. The Lightning pulled relief goaltender Dwayne Roloson in the final minute and got sixth-attacker goals by Teddy Purcell and Martin St. Louis, but came up a goal short. Purcell and Stamkos, who also assisted on both late goals, both have four-game point streaks.
"We got the win," Pavelec said. "That's the most important thing right now."
St. Louis did not think much of the Lightning's late rally.
"The second period was pretty atrocious," St. Louis said. "I thought we hung in there, fought in the third, but it's easy to play when you're down 4-0. They're not sitting back. We have to have that attitude of making tough decisions from the get-go, managing the puck offensively and defensively. We didn't do that from the beginning."
The Jets led 2-0 after one period and went on their first power play 14 seconds into the middle period when Victor Hedman flipped the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game call. The Jets capitalized when Kane fired a hard shot from the edge of the high slot that Ladd tipped past Garon with 38 seconds left on the man-advantage.
Just 1:03 later, Ryan Malone's tripping penalty put the Jets back on the power play. Winnipeg needed only nine seconds to convert the opportunity when Byfuglien ripped a shot from the right point through heavy crease traffic that tore past Garon at 2:48.
Byfuglien's goal chased Garon in favor of Roloson. In the team's most recent MTS Centre meeting, the Jets had knocked out Roloson in a 5-2 win on Nov. 14. Roloson shut down the Jets the rest of the way in mop-up duty, making 16 saves.
"I guess we're allergic to this place," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "We had our two worst games of the year [in Winnipeg]."
Winnipeg built a 2-0 first-period lead on goals from Ladd and Glass. Ladd's hot touch provided the Jets an early 1-0 lead at 7:11. Wheeler and Little muscled the puck away from Lightning defenders deep in the left corner. Little pushed a pass to the slot, where Ladd one-timed a low shot under Garon.
"They came out a lot more desperately than we did, that's for sure," St. Louis said.
The Jets expanded their lead when Mark Flood, dressed for the first time since Jan. 19, wheeled down the right boards before feeding the puck into the slot. Glass and Chris Thorburn shoved the puck under a pack of players in Garon's crease and into the net at 14:59.
A visit from the St. Louis Blues on Saturday afternoon continues the Jets' homestand. As difficult as it has been to reach the top of the division for the first time, the Jets are well aware that staying there will be even tougher.
"I think we're aware of where we've come from and what it's going to take to continue this," Wheeler said. "We can't sit back and take a photo and say, ‘Hey, we're all set.' It's going to take this kind of hockey for the next 19 games to make the playoffs."
Still, Byfuglien took a moment to bask in finally reaching the Southeast Division peak.