When you have the sort of firepower, determination and wild support the Winnipeg Jets have these days, you’re never out of a game.
The Jets, the best home team in hockey, found themselves down and almost out after the opening 20 minutes, but they dug in against the best road team in the NHL, the Nashville Predators, to score a 7-4 victory and a 2-1 series lead at Bell MTS Place on Tuesday.
Winnipeg looked jittery, slow and still playing with the disappointment of the 5-4 overtime loss in Nashville on Sunday. This is, after all, still a young team in terms of playoff experience.
But there were the two most experienced Stanley Cup playoff performers in centre Paul Stastny (63 games) and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien (51 games), as well as captain Blake Wheeler, the heart and soul of the Jets, leading the comeback.
By the time the second period was five minutes and 29 seconds old, Winnipeg had tied the game. They then went ahead before the intermission on Byfuglien’s second goal of the game. Stastny checked in with a goal and two assists during the scoring spree.
And if you want a head-scratcher, consider that when Byfuglien and defenceman Jacob Trouba scored 18 seconds apart to tie the game early in the second period, the goals arrived during four-on-four play with their best forward, Mark Scheifele, in the penalty box with Nashville’s Austin Watson.
The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Predators, however, were not done after the Jets went ahead late in the second period. They drew even on a screen-shot, power-play goal from Filip Forsberg at the 7:40 mark of the final period.
This set up for another brilliant finish in this second-round series that has produced a whopping 25 goals through three back-and-forth games.
But it was the Predators who self-destructed with consecutive minor penalties to Game 2 overtime hero Kevin Fiala (tripping), P.K. Subban (high sticking) and goalie Pekka Rinne (slashing) with his best impersonation of Manitoban Ron Hextall to give the Jets three power plays in a row.
Wheeler, who had a wide-open net but flipped a shot high when the Jets were behind 3-1 early in the third period, made good on the second power play with a shot from a bad angle for the game-winner.
“We just went out to win a period,” said Wheeler, when asked about what was said during the first period. “There was no question this team could come back. We just wanted to give ourselves a fighting chance.”
Wheeler added an empty-netter, as did third-line left wing Brandon Tanev, to complete the scoring and give the wonderful Jets fans their 13th straight victory at home to celebrate.
“It’s always great, it always helps our team,” Byfuglien said of the 15,321 inside the building and thousands more outside watching the game in the world’s biggest hockey block party. “It gives you a little more drive. It’s good that they are on our side.”
The last team to beat the Jets in Winnipeg was Nashville, with a 6-5 win on Feb. 27. This game had it all. Offence. A comeback. An unbelievable crowd. A player dancing on the ice. Yes, that’s right, big 260-pound Byfuglien did a little shimmy after his go-ahead goal with 45 seconds remaining in the second period.
“There were too many people jumping up and down in front of me,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice when asked to rate Byfuglien’s dance moves.
“What makes him unique is he can — I don’t know if takeover is the right word — but he can make an impact in the game in every single way that’s possible, other than playing goal. He can defend. He can be real physical. Nobody wants to drop the gloves with him. And then there is the offensive side with his quick hands, a perfectly placed shot and all the things he can do offensively.
“The goals now will draw the camera to him. But he went through a long stretch in the first half of the year when he was really, really good and he wasn’t scoring so there were questions about the quality of his play. But he’s built his game this year and for me, he now has both sides. He’s got the right reads and the real good defensive play.
“The more energy and the more excitement in the game he can take his game to another level.”