SUNRISE, Fla. — Here at Manitoba Hockey News we’ve called Dustin Byfuglien the best power forward in the National Hockey League. At least, for a defenseman. In overtime on Friday night, he proved how good he really is.
With control of the puck in the Florida zone, Byfuglien beat three Panthers, crossed in front of the net, found open ice and rifled a shot past Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom — on the short side, no less — to give the Jets a 3-2 road win.
It was Winnipeg’s second straight victory as the Jets reached the midway point of the season with a record 12-11-1. The Jets are still second in the Southeast Division, but now just two points back of first place Carolina. They are also in ninth in the East, just one point behind the eighth-place Rangers and two points behind seventh-place New Jersey, the team they face on Sunday afternoon.
This was a big win for the Jets against a team that isn’t very good. Still, the Jets had lost twice at the BB&T Bank Centre — 4-1 on Tuesday and 6-3 back on Jan. 31 — and seldom, if ever, play well in front of South Florida’s sparse crowds.
Then again, they weren’t that good on Friday night. The Jets were outshot 40-28 and the Panthers held territorial control for most of the game. While Byfuglien was the hero in overtime, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec was the hero the rest of the way.
“It was a sloppy, sloppy game again,” Jets defenseman Mark Stuart told nhl.com. “It wasn’t much better than the other night in this building. But we stuck with it. It’s huge to get the two points thanks to our goaltender. He was huge for us, kept us in it and a great play by Buff there.”
When the Jets won Thursday night in Tampa, backup goalie Al Montoya got the start. Montoya was terrific as the Jets beat a good offensive team. Jets head coach Claude Noel said he started Montoya because Pavelec had played almost all of the first half of the season and looked tired. However, he did not look tired on Friday night and in the third period, when the Panthers went hard at the Jets net and outshot Winnipeg 12-4, Pavelec was the best player on the ice.
“I don’t think I was tired in here on Tuesday,” Pavelec said. “The game didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, that’s all. It doesn’t mean I’m tired. We just didn’t show up that game in this building. After last night it was huge to come strong in this building and get the win. It’s nice to get back-to-back wins, especially on the road. We couldn’t get this done last year, so we’re happy for it.”
The Jets built a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Andrew Ladd (Ladd finished with a goal and an assist) and Blake Wheeler, but the Panthers played a decent hockey game.
However, one might say the officiating was quite, ahh, “interesting.” In fact, if anyone wanted to call it a “homer job” they’d certainly be entitled. The Jets went 0-for-1 on the power play while Florida went 0-for-5. Five-to-one on power plays? Yeah, that’s probably a bit of a homer job.
Still, Pavelec’s performance as a member of the penalty kill, made Noel very happy.
“The penalty killing has been one of our bread-and-butter,” Noel said. “Again, you look at last night with Montoya and you look tonight with Pavelec, what can you say? If you get that kind of goaltending, it affords you to make some mistakes on the penalty killing. We’ve got that the last two games. Our penalty killing has come up big, but our goaltender has been huge as well.”
The Panthers definitely had the better of play, especially during the final 40 minutes, but as they have done on a number of occasions this season, the Jets found a way to win on a night when they weren’t at their best.
“Every team needs it,” Byfuglien told the Associated Press. “It doesn’t matter how you win, you can always build off it. You can look at the things you did wrong and build off that, too. What’s most important is that we got our two points.”
The Jets will have Saturday off to travel and then will face the New Jersey Devils in Newark on Sunday at 6 p.m. CST on TSN Jets TV. With a win in Jersey the Jets will get over .500 by two games for the first time this season, win their third straight game, go 3-1 on this road trip and probably slip into a playoff spot. This is what’s called, “a huge game.”