There aren’t too many times a midseason game against a non-division opponent can be considered a “playoff-type” game.
That’s exactly the situation the Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils faced tonight. New Jersey fell to eighth in the Eastern Conference after the New York Rangers won earlier in the day. Winnipeg won seven of its last nine games, and sat just two points behind the Devils. With more non-shootout wins and a game in hand, the Jets would move into eighth place.
The Devils responded with its most complete game in almost a month, defeating the Jets, 3-2, in a shootout at the Prudential Center. The win bumped New Jersey back into seventh place in the conference, one point ahead Rangers. They sit three points ahead of Winnipeg, who picked up a win in the loss.
“It’s huge,” Stephen Gionta said after the game. “We talked about it before the game, that playoff-type atmosphere. Halfway through the year. Every game is important. It’s essentially a four point game tonight. They got one, but it was a huge win for us mentally. I thought we played a pretty good first and third.”
Patrik Elias scored the lone shootout goal, beating Ondrej Pavelec in the third round. The Devils left wing skated in on the Jets netminder, waiting until the last second to slide a backhand shot between his pads.
“I gave him a fake, but he was pretty deep,” Elias said of the shootout winning goal. “When you come across like that you just try to sneak it in. You make a move and react to it. I’m glad it squeezed in.”
Johan Hedberg stopped Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd in the shootout. After making 13 saves and being pulled in last night’s loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, Hedberg rebounded with a 23 save performance. That included five saves in overtime, the most impressive with under a minute left.
Kane carried the puck over the Devils blue line, skating to the top of the right circle before firing a shot that deflected off of Bryce Salvador. Hedberg, at the top of his crease, gloved the shot.
“That was a weird shot,” the Devils goalie said. “That’s a bounce I need to get this back on track. They haven’t been going my way to much. I’ll take it.”
Ryan Carter and Gionta scored first period goals for the Devils, who won its second straight shootout game. Devils head coach Pete DeBoer was impressed with the team’s effort on the second game of a back-to-back.
“I’m just happy we won,” he said. “I thought it was a gutsy effort by our group. Seven games in 11 nights, and playing last night on the road with Winnipeg sitting here rested waiting for us, to come out with the type of start we had I thought our guys really dug deep.”
Mark Stuart led all Jets scorers with two points (1g, 1a). Kane also scored for Winnipeg, who lost to New Jersey for the first time this season.
New Jersey allowed the first goal in nine straight games, but broke that streak in the first period.
Carter opened the scoring, giving New Jersey a 1-0 lead at 8:47 of the opening period. The play started when Anton Volchenkov dumped the puck into corner from the Jets blue line. It caromed off the glass and went to the front of the net. Travis Zajac had the first chance, putting his shot off of Pavelec. He sent the rebound through the crease, and Derek Meech tried to clear. He whiffed on his attempt, sending the puck right to Carter’s stick. The Devils left wing picked it up sent a spinning backhand shot from the left post into the net for his third goal of the season.
Getting a lead for the first time in nine games was a relief for the Devils.
“The first goal has been elusive for us,” Carter said. “We’ve played pretty well to start the game, but we can’t find a way to get it behind the goal line. That’s a system goal too. Volchenkov rims it around, and we’ve got our routes and we ran them and we got a fortunate bounce. That was the monkey off the back and guys are relieved. We got the first one, we’re not playing from behind and we can build on it.”
Gionta would build up that lead less than two minutes later. Ilya Kovalchuk held the puck near the Devils blue line, sending a cross-ice pass to Gionta. The Devils center picked up the puck at the Jets blue line and sped past the defense. His shot beat Pavelec through the legs for Gionta’s third goal of the season.
That start wouldn’t last. Mark Stuart received a lucky bounce of his own to cut the Devils lead to 2-1 late in the first period. Hedberg blocked aside a shot from Antti Miettinen, and it fell to Stuart at the side boards. The Winnipeg defenseman shot from the left circle deflected off the stick of Andy Greene and past Hedberg for Stuart’s second goal of the season.
Hedberg admitted that shaking off that bad bounce was a challenge.
“The thought (of another bad bounce costing New Jersey) ran through my head, but I didn’t want it in there,” the Devils goalie said. “We’ve seen them before, unfortunately. You have to stay sharp. It’s a mental battle.”
Kane tied the game, 2-2, in the second period. Adam Larsson tipped a Stuart clearing attempt at the Jets blue line, but the puck bounced to an open Kane at the Devils blue line. He moved in on a two-on-one rush, snapping a wrist shot from the left circle over the glove of Hedberg for his 10th goal of the season.
It seemed like yet another game that would get away from New Jersey. DeBoer knew otherwise.
“Our group was determined to win,” he said. “That was from the drop of the puck to start the game right through to the shootout. They were determined to win this game and get two points, and they found a way.”
With the Devils now in the back half of its schedule, the team knows each point is valuable.
“(The end of the season is) coming up quick here,” Greene said. ” You can’t look ahead, but it’s five-and-a-half, six weeks and it’s going to come quick. You need to make sure you’re not leaving points out there. Obviously, you’re not going to win every game. You have to make sure if the opportunity is there, you come away with some points.”
Volchenkov went to the locker room after blocking a Kane shot early in the third period. The Devils defenseman quickly returned to the game, and said afterward an MRI was negative.
“It’s a pretty hard shot actually and there’s nothing really to protect that spot,” he said. “Kaner got a good shot as well. Part of the game. Take shot, block shot.”
Bryce Salvador spoke about the injury that kept him out of Saturday’s loss in Carolina after the game. The Devils captain admitted the injury will be something he deals with all season, but he can play through it.
“I feel good. I got cleared,” he said. “They (team doctors) said what I have isn’t going to get any worse. I can play with it, so it was great news. It’s a little good news and we got the win. What more can you ask for?”
Kovalchuk has points in four straight games, recording two goals and three assists.
Carter has five points (1g, 4a) in six games since returning from a concussion.