Three simple mistakes. That's all it took for the Winnipeg Jets to wipe out a dominating performance at the MTS Centre Saturday and lose to the Florida Panthers 4-3 in a shootout.
The Jets had the Panthers beaten for most of the game, outshooting them 44-33, out-hitting them 38-16 and winning 41 of 68 faceoffs.
But all Florida needed were miscues by Blake Wheeler, Ron Hainsey and Tobias Enstrom to get the game into a prolonged shootout, where they ultimately prevailed.
"The disappointing part in the game for me was really the fact that we gave them three free goals," Jets coach Claude Noel said after the game. "Players don't do those things intentionally either. You feel for them. I've been in those situations. I've done the same stupid thing. But what can you do? These things happen sometimes. Why? We don't know. We lose sleep, I'll tell you, over it."
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen knew his team had snuck out of Winnipeg with a win. "It was a pretty big wave that came at us and we did a pretty great job of holding them to shots, which is a little facetious," he said afterward. "I thought that for the most part it wasn't a thing of beauty, but we found a way, and that has been a bit of our identity this year, finding a way to win those games."
By all accounts Florida shouldn't have been in this game at all. They arrived in Winnipeg around 3 a.m. local time after getting beaten 3-1 Friday in Chicago and being delayed by a snow storm. The Panthers had also lost eight straight road games and were barely clinging to eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, just three points ahead of Winnipeg. Even better for the Jets, Winnipeg had been 7-0 this season at home against opponents who had played 24 hours earlier, usually in Chicago.
But it was the Panthers who came out strong early and Kris Versteeg capitalized less than six minutes into the game on a turnover by Wheeler.
The Jets had plenty of chances to come back right away but they couldn't score on three straight power plays in the first, including a two-man advantage that lasted a minute.
The Panthers struck again as the opening period wound down when Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey tried to clear the puck from behind Winnipeg's goal. Instead it ended up in front of the net and on the stick of Panthers forward Mike Santorelli, who fired it past Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
The Jets finally connected early in the second period when Nik Antropov scored on the team's fourth straight power play. That gave Winnipeg some life and it turned the tide on Florida, shelling back-up Panther goalie Scott Clemmensen with 15 shots in the second period and 30 overall heading into the third. But Florida escaped with the lead.
The Jets started the third period much the same, outplaying Florida on almost every front. It finally paid off with Antropov getting his second goal to tie the game. The MTS Centre crowd had gone into full cheer when Versteeg picked off an errant pass by Enstrom just 57 second later and fired a quick shot that hit Pavelec and trickled in. That gave Florida the lead once more.
The Jets looked to be collapsing, but came back. Alexander Burmistrov, whose playing time had been cut back sharply in recent games, scored to tie it and send the game into overtime and ultimately a shootout.
It took 14 shooters to decide the outcome, but Florida's Mikael Samuelsson finally got what proved to be the winner.
Dineen gave credit to Clemmensen, who stopped a season-high 41 shots, and Versteeg, the Pantherss' top goal scorer who hadn't scored in nine previous games.
"I think that he was chomping at the bit," Dineen said of the goaltender. "And he really wanted to get in there. A really well-deserved two points for Scott Clemmensen."
As for Versteeg, he just felt relief to finally be scoring again.
"I have been kind of brutal as of late," Versteeg said after the game. "I have been missing a lot of opportunities, a lot of open nets, a lot of breakaways. I think it was just a matter of time before I got a bounce, and tonight was the night, obviously."
The Jets now have to regroup before heading out for six games on the road, broken up by the all-star game. Winnipeg is now 22-20-6 with 50 points, good enough for 10th place in the East. Florida is 22-15-10 with 54 points and leads the Southeast Division.
Noel and several players put a brave face on Saturday's loss, noting that the team came back twice to tie the game.
"We chased all night and tried to catch up and we did that. So that's a big positive for us," said Jim Slater.
Added Zach Bogosian: "I think that anytime you battle back it's kind of more of a point gained [than lost]"
Noel said he and the players were "not going to beat ourselves up on the game.
"It was a game you would have liked to have won, there's no doubt," he added. "But you can't be giving the team opportunities like we gave them and expect that you are going to survive in those situations.
"But you know what? We got a point."