Claude Noel got creative on Tuesday night and the Winnipeg Jets responded with another victory.
The Jets won their third game in four outings and picked up their seventh of a possible eight points in the last four games with a decisive 5-2 victory over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
Noel, the Jets stream-of-consciousness head coach, started the evening by making good on a threat – he benched enigmatic Russian forward Alexander Burmistrov, leaving Burmistrov in the press box as a healthy scratch and giving spots in the lineup to James Wright, Jim Slater, Eric Tangradi, Antti Miettinen and Chris Thorburn.
Then, he watched as is captain, Andrew Ladd was the most physical player on the ice. So physical, that after Chris Thorburn fought Toronto’s Colton Orr, the heavyweight champion of the NHL, Ladd got into a donnybrook with Toronto defenseman, and captain, Dion Phaneuf. Ladd didn’t do badly, either.
Then, in the second period, Noel really started thinking outside the box. On an odd line change, he decided to let defenseman Dustin Byfuglien – who had just rushed the puck – to remain as a forward and threw out Mark Stuart and Derek Meech on defense. Byfuglien dug out the puck, passed it to Kyle Wellwood, who scored his second goal of the season to give the Jets a 3-1 lead.
It wasn’t like Noel stuck with the strategy. Byfuglien was soon back on the point. But for one fleeting moment – a moment when the Jets scored a goal – Byfuglien played the position he should always play and he got the Jets a big goal.
“Andrew Ladd was very physical tonight,” said Noel. “He led the way with his physical play. I thought Ladd was one of the keys to our victory with his play, He set the tone for the game with his physical play.
“And there was that great play by Buff. It’s hard to argue that Buff plays forward a lot of the time. He’s pretty comfortable down around the other team’s net. That pass he made to Wellwood for the goal was a really great play.”
The benching of Burmistrov made some sense. After all, the 21-year-old Russian speedster had just three goals and four assists and was plus-six in 25 games this season. Trouble is, Noel kept Olli Jokinen in the lineup. He has five goals and two assists and is minus-11. Burmistrov probably deserved to be benched, but no more than Jokinen, who is 34 and has no real upside.
Either Noel knows his players better than everyone else (which is likely), or hockey simply isn’t fair.
Meanwhile, Tuesday night, Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec was rock solid when he had to be, making 24 saves to record his 10th win of the season and his fourth at home. Pavelec is now 10-11-2 on the season for a team that is now 13-11-2 and tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Blake Wheeler scored twice for the Jets while Nik Antropov had a goal and two assists and Byfuglien had three assists. Evander Kane, with a bullet shot past Leafs goalie James Reimer at 11:16 of the third, scored the other Jets goal. Reimer was pulled and replaced by Ben Scrivens right after the Kane goal.
Phil Kessel scored both goals for Toronto, his eighth and ninth of the season.
Noel, meanwhile, believed that the most important moment in the game took place in the second period when the Jets, once again, killed off an almost two-minute long, two-man disadvantage.
“The 5-on-3 penalty kill when we were ahead 2-1 was the turning point in the game,” Noel said. “It got the energy up in the building. It really got the fans into it. Then, to come down and score that third goal. well, that made all the difference in the outcome. It was a selfless performance by our players tonight. Our players made a decision to take a step forward tonight.”
The Jets will have Wednesday off to practice and then play again on Thursday night at MTS Centre against the New York Rangers at 7 p.m. on TSN Jets TV. The Rangers were beaten 3-1 by the Sabres in Buffalo so Thursday’s game is a huge four-pointer.