WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets won a game they had to win and made a statement to the Florida Panthers in the process.
The Jets hung a 7-0 beating to the Panthers at the MTS Centre on Thursday night to take over the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Winnipeg used five goals in the third period to blow open a game that was 2-0 after two periods and roll up its largest margin of victory this season.
"It was a great [win] for us," said forward Blake Wheeler, whose goal with 2:02 remaining capped the big night. "We played really well. It was a game that we had to win, and we won it convincingly, so we feel good about that."
The Jets' win moved them up to 70 points, one ahead of idle Washington and two behind the first-place Panthers in the Southeast Division. However, Florida and Washington both have three games in hand on Winnipeg. After a rare weekend off, the Jets wrap up their season-high eight-game homestand against Buffalo before facing a road trip to Vancouver and Calgary.
Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec rebounded from a shaky performance in a loss to Edmonton on Monday and made 33 saves to record his fourth shutout of the season.
"The guys were on fire in the third period," Pavelec said. "It was fun to watch, and it was fun to be part of."
That loss to Edmonton, in which the Jets allowed four third-period goals to the Oilers, had left the Jets an unhappy group with two days to stew over the defeat.
"It was big game for us, and it was great to be able to prove to everybody that we're ready to play," said Evander Kane, who delivered a two-goal, two-assist evening for his first career four-point performance.
Winnipeg scored twice in the opening 6:03 and nursed the two-goal lead until scoring four times in the first 8:18 in the third period, chasing starting goaltender Jose Theodore with the Panthers down 4-0 on just 24 Winnipeg shots. The Jets then pounded Scott Clemmensen, who turned in a 41-save performance in the teams' previous meeting in Winnipeg on Jan. 21, for three more goals on eight shots. The Jets' five-goal third period tied a franchise high.
Jets coach Claude Noel took a measured tone afterward.
"I'm not going to get too carried away on the seven goals," Noel said. "It was probably a fun night for a lot of people and stuff like that. But a win's a win. It gives us two points."
Florida saw its three-game winning streak and four-game road winning streak end, as the Jets defeated the Panthers for the first time in Winnipeg this season. The clubs will meet one more time in early April at the BankAtlantic Center.
"We had lots of turnovers and they ended up in our net," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "You can't play that kind of hockey in October, and you certainly can't play it in March. It's definitely a man's game this time of year, and we did not look prepared.
"I think we understood that they were going to come hard," Dineen continued. "They're a desperate team, [chasing the] playoffs, and they were going to push hard. I don't think we responded well to that pressure."
Kane's opening goal extended his point streak to a career-high eight games and was the sixth time the Jets have notched the game's opening goal in seven games on their current homestand. Wheeler, Jim Slater, Kyle Wellwood, Bryan Little, and Nik Antropov had Winnipeg's other goals, and Mark Stuart added two assists.
"You want to continue to put on pressure," Kane said. "You don't want to sit back and let them slowly creep back into the game, so I think it was really good to keep the pedal on the gas and not have any mercy."
The Jets controlled the opening five minutes of play, using a power play 30 seconds into the game to pin Florida in its own zone. The Panthers killed off the man advantage against the League's most dangerous home power play, but the Winnipeg pressure continued. Kane intercepted Keaton Ellerby's attempted clearing pass off the left boards toward the middle of the ice, settled the bouncing puck and then skipped a shot off Theodore's pads and into the net 4:01 into the game.
The Jets added to their lead 2:02 later when a crowd of players stumbled into Theodore outside of the crease as Stuart launched a long shot off the left point. The rebound skidded to the left of the net, where Slater pounded it home for a 2-0 lead.
"We came out flat," Dineen said. "We didn't respond well to pressure early, and that was the difference in the hockey game."
Florida twice threatened in the period in capitalizing on Winnipeg turnovers that generated breakaways. But Pavelec steered aside each Florida chance and then stymied the Panthers further with 17 second-period saves.
Florida had little time to mount a third-period comeback before Wellwood tipped in a long Stuart shot to make it 3-0.
"That was a big goal," Noel said. "That kind of helped us out and after that it became just one of those nights."
Florida's defensive play then broke down completely when Little finished off a 5-on-1 rush with a tic-tac-toe play that chased Theodore at 4:35. Clemmensen could not contain the Winnipeg deluge, as Antropov shoveled a loose rebound past the Florida goaltender at 8:06 before Kane converted a partial breakaway 12 seconds later. The 12 seconds between goals tied a season mark for Winnipeg.
Wheeler, who has 15 points over his last eight games, closed the scoring by scoring his 14th of the season.
The Panthers now return home for a date with the Nashville Predators, who bulked up their roster earlier in the week. Veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski was one of a few Panthers still sitting in an empty dressing room several minutes after the game.
"We gave them pretty much everything they got," Jovanovski said. "We knew they were a team that goes to the net hard. As a group, we knew that it was going to be a tough game. We didn't have an answer tonight. We just didn't have the push-back."