By John Gaudes (@johngaudes)
WINNIPEG — The Jets race for the last Western Conference playoff spot has been bumpy, with as many ruts as those in Winnipeg’s streets. On Saturday night at MTS Centre, they ran full speed into another one — Cam Ward — and fell 3-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Ward made 35 saves, including one that will earn nods for the league’s best of the year in the first period – diving across his crease, he speared a point-blank Bryan Little shot with the end of his stick to keep the game scoreless. The save took the air out of the MTS Centre, as well as the players on the ice.
“Their goalie’s pretty good, huh? He played unbelievable. There was a number of empty nets that he took away from us. If we had a couple of those, it might be a different game,” said Blake Wheeler.
Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice has seen the excellence of Ward before, having coached him from 2008 to 2012.
“He’s a leader in the locker room and has had just a disastrous season. Going into the second, we had to change the offensive attack and stop putting the puck in the same way. Trying to do rush things and seam things, that’s to their strength, not ours,” said Maurice.
“Cam Ward was the story of this hockey game. He was the best player on the ice.”
The loss sees Winnipeg fall to 32-31-9, while Carolina improves to 31-31-9. The loss proves a serious blow to Winnipeg’s playoff hopes, but the door has not shut yet with ten games to go.
Carolina got a goal each from the Staal brothers — the 17th of the year for Eric, 15th for Jordan – as well as one from Riley Nash. All came in the second period, within a span of four minutes.
Bryan Little got a bit of revenge on Ward in the third to score his 21st of the year, while Jim Slater scored the other Winnipeg goal in the second — his first of the season, and first as a father.
Winnipeg’s start was promising, as they had the first nine shots on goal. Ward’s save on Little, though, suffocated an energetic building and turned energy toward the Carolina side. Despite this, the Jets got on the board first at the 7:48 mark of the second period, as a Mark Stuart point shot was redirected nicely by Slater.
Answering quickly was Carolina at 8:25, as Al Montoya — who made 32 saves on the night but struggled in the second frame — got caught out of net by Eric Staal, who tied the game on a snapper in front of the goal. Two minutes later, Eric’s brother Jordan received a beautiful pass to split Winnipeg’s defence down the middle. Coming down the centre, he put the puck over Montoya to put the ‘Canes up 2-1. A minute after that, Montoya failed to make an easy cover-up and Riley Nash stole it away, wrapping it around the net to make it 3-1.
1:27 into the third, the Jets got a little closer thanks to a nice Michael Frolik pass, which found Little in front of the net for a goal. After that, though Ward reared his dominance again — thwarting scrum after scrum in front of the Carolina net to ensure his team a victory.
The Jets now head out on what promises to be a grueling western road swing, starting in Dallas on Monday night and continuing through San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Phoenix.