By Darrin Bauming (@DarrinBauming)
WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets may not have made a huge leap in the standings Thursday night, but their 7-0 dismantling of the division leading Florida Panthers may just prove to be the fuel they need to lock down a top-eight spot come the quickly approaching post season.
“It was a huge win,” said Evander Kane following his four-point performance where he notched his team-leading 25th and 26th goals of the campaign. “Obviously it was a much anticipated game playing the division leaders, and being able to get a little bit closer to them in the standings.”
With 16 games remaining, the Jets (31-27-8, 70 points) climb onto the heels of the Panthers (30-21-12, 72 points) in the race for the Southeast. The one obstacle the team can’t overcome on their own is the three games in hand the Panthers currently hold.
The win does put Winnipeg into a playoff spot for the time being as they leapfrogged another divisional foe in the Washington Capitals (32-26-5, 69 points) for eighth in the Eastern Conference and second in the division.
Leading 2-0 through 40 minutes on first period goals from Kane and Jim Slater, the Jets came out flying in the third, scoring four times in the frame’s opening 8:18.
Florida’s wheels really fell off at the 4:35 mark when Winnipeg’s top point producer helped create one of the most notable plays of the year.
Blake Wheeler intercepted a Panthers pass deep in the Jets zone that would have been a setup to Florida’s first goal into a gaping cage behind Ondrej Pavelec. Wheeler then turned up ice and found himself among five Jets skating against just one Panther.
“I’ve never seen that before ever, “ said Wheeler of the 5-on-1 rush. “I was really nervous actually because I looked up and heard the crowd going crazy so I figured 2-on-1, 3-on-1, whatever. There was all five guys so I didn’t know where to go with the puck. (Randy Jones) seemed like a good option so I gave it to him. Hopefully he wasn’t going to give it back. (He) gave it right back to me, and thank god I was able to find (Bryan Little) because I’ve never seen that before. Ever.”
Wheeler capped his two-point night with the game’s seventh goal, lifting his season point total to 53.
Ondrej Pavelec captured his 24th victory and fourth shutout of the season Thursday, turning away 33 Panther shots, including 17 in the second period to keep it a 2-0 game.
“Just to stay disciplined and play smart and play the… way we did,” said the 24-year-old backstop of the advice he was given entering the third period. “Last game we gave up four (third period goals), so I think we learned from that.”
After battling through 15 games in the last 29 days, the Jets will enjoy three days rest before hosting the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night. Next week Winnipeg heads out on a quick two-game roadie through Vancouver and Calgary.