TAMPA, Fla. — Brian Little said he finally had a chance to use his “size.” He also said he didn’t even aim. He still scored the winner, regardless.
With Martin St. Louis hanging on his back, Little swooped in from the rightside of Tampa goalie Anders Lindback, cut to the front of the net and jammed the puck past the Tampa netminder with 4:08 remaining in regulation time. It was Little’s fourth goal of the season and enough to give the Jets a hard-fought 2-1 victory.
“I had a chance to use my size which is something I don’t get to do very often,” said the diminutive Little who is somewhat taller, if not a little wider, than St. Louis. “I didn’t even aim. I was just able to move in front of the net and bang it at him.
“That was a big win for us. After we played so badly against Florida on Tuesday night, and everybody knows we weren’t very good, it was important for us to come back and play a better hockey game tonight.”
The Jets certainly played better against Tampa on Thursday than they did against Florida on Tuesday. In fact, Evander Kane, who might have been lucky to have produced nine seconds of good hockey on Tuesday, had nine shots Thursday night and was the game’s third star.
“I thought we played a strong game,” said Jets coach Claude Noel. “I thought our goalie was strong in the net for a guy that hasn’t played since Feb 10. I thought he was real strong and made some key saves for us.
“That’s a really tough task, to come in every 10 games or whatever it is and do the job that he did and be out for that amount of time, it’s a really tough task, so our hat goes off to him and I certainly think his teammates appreciate the job that he did.”
Perhaps the biggest improvement for the Jets, at least over the two losses to Washington (3-0 at home last Saturday) and Florida (4-1 on Tuesday) was the play of the penalty-killing unit. The Jets went into Thursday’s game with the worst penalty-killing percentage in the NHL (.735), however they were able to shut down the Lightning power play – 0-for-5.
“We made some changes to the unit, did some things differently,” said assistant coach Perry Pearn, the man in charge of the unit. “It’s taken some time, but we’re getting better. I thought we did a great job against that 5-on-3 and after that, I thought we were in good shape.”
Noel agreed that shutting down the near-two-minute 5-on-3 in the second period was the turning point in the game.
“For us the turning point of the game was the 5-on-3 penalty kill,” Noel said. “It was a full two minutes and it’s really hard to see if you can get out of that. It was a key kill. Guys made sacrifices.”
With the win, the Jets improved to 11-11-1 and moved to within four points of first place Carolina in the Southeast Division and into ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Winnipeg opened the scoring at 10:05 of the first period when Kyle Wellwood did a pile of work, maintaining control of the puck along the boards while holding off two defenders. He finally found Eric Tangradi who beat Lindback from a sharp angle from below the faceoff circle for his first goal of the season. In the end, Wellwood wasn’t even given an assist because the puck hit a Tampa player’s stick on the way to Tangradi. That’s a stupid rule. Wellwood did 10 times more work than most players do to get cheap assists.
While the Jets were solid all-around on Thursday night, the star of the game was clearly Montoya who made 28 saves to get the win.
“The goalie stopped five one-timers,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “At least one of them would normally go in. I certainly wouldn’t tell (Stamkos) that he didn’t shoot right. Vinny’s one-timer was outstanding and yet their goalie got it with his glove. The goalie stopped them. The goalie played great.”
Tampa outshot Winnipeg 29-28.
Winnipeg continues its four-game road trip with a return visit to the Florida Panthers in Sunrise on Friday night, 6:30 p.m. on TSN Jets TV.