The Winnipeg Jets hoped the return of their lone all-star, Dustin Byfuglien, would help generate some badly needed offence Thursday in Tampa Bay. And it sure did.
Byfuglien, known for his penchant for shooting as much as for his 280-pound girth, hadn't played since Dec. 27 when he injured his knee. The Jets were certainly eager to see him return especially after averaging less than two goals per game during his absence. "He makes us go," forward Blake Wheeler said before the game. "He is kind of our identity. When he goes, we go."
Byfuglien looked surprisingly good Thursday. He led the Jets in ice time, playing just over 25 minutes. He also made several smart defensive plays and produced some decent scoring chances including hitting the post. Even better for the Jets, he got an assist on the winning goal in overtime which gave Winnipeg a 2-1 victory over the Lightning at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"I felt real good, a lot better than I thought I would," Byfuglien said after the game. "It didn't take too long to get right in the mix of things and get the timing down."
He joked that he broke a stick on his first shift and had to snatch one from fellow defenceman Zach Bogosian. He then missed an open net. "It was a little frustrating off the hop but I ground right in there quick," he said.
The win was Winnipeg's second straight in extra time and it brought the Jets closer to a playoff position with 54 points, four back of Toronto which is in eighth. It also ended a five game winning streak by Tampa Bay which had been showing signs of life in the playoff race but is now five points back of Winnipeg.
Winnipeg continues to struggle to score, but for now anyway the team seems to get just enough goals to win. The Jets scored just one goal in regulation time Tuesday but still managed to beat the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 in a shoot out.
"I'm not really too concerned with the scoring too much. I think we are playing well," coach Claude Noel said after the game. "Right now it's about winning. We're winning some games and I think that's the good thing."
The teams started Thursday's game even with good chances and near-costly mistakes. Both teams were penalized for having too many men on the ice, but neither could score on the subsequent power plays. It was left to both goaltenders to make several crucial saves. Tampa's Mathieu Garon kept his team from falling behind several times in the first, including on a wide-open shot by Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov. Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec faced a barrage of shots in the second period, including a near tip-in by Vincent Lecavalier and hard blasts from Dominic Moore and Eric Brewer.
The Jets managed to score with just 15 seconds left in the second period when Wheeler picked up a rebound and snapped a wrist shot past Garon. The goal came after the Lightning had been taking the play to Winnipeg and chasing Pavelec around his crease. He ended up making 30 saves in the game.
The Lightning pushed the pace hard in the third and for a while it looked like Pavelec could do no wrong as he kept stopping shot after shot. But Tampa Bay finally scored when Victor Hedman, who had returned from missing 13 games because of a concussion, blew by Byfuglien and snapped a shot past Pavelec.
About three minutes into the overtime, Winnipeg forward Kyle Wellwood won a faceoff in Tampa's zone and Byfuglien fired a pass over to Wheeler who faked a shot before passing it back to Wellwood. By then Garon had been badly beaten and Wellwood didn't miss the open net.
"That's a nice feeling," Wellwood said afterward. When asked if that was his biggest overtime goal, Wellwood smiled and said: "I don't even know if I have had one."
Noel said he was surprised the puck went in. "I didn't know it went in the net. I thought it went over the net. I was like, 'Did it go in?' "
Wheeler, who had a goal and an assist, gave full marks to Byfuglien for the win.
"In my opinion he was outstanding," Wheeler said. "He was involved offensively the entire game. He made some really good plays defensively too. We're a different team with him in the lineup."
The Jets head to Sunrise, Fla., for a game Friday against the Florida Panthers. Winnipeg has yet to win the second game of a back to back this season, going 0-8. Tampa Bay can still mount a challenge too. The Lightning have played two fewer games than Winnipeg and they have a favourable schedule, with 28 of their remaining 42 games at home.