Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel has talked a lot about big games lately. But few have been as important this season for Winnipeg as Thursday's matchup against the Florida Panthers at the MTS Centre.
A win would vault the Jets back into the playoff picture and put them within two points of the Panthers for top spot in the Southeast Division. A victory would also help erase a lacklustre effort by Winnipeg Monday that resulted in an 5-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and prompted Jets forward Kyle Wellwood to call it the worst loss of the year.
So Thursday would be a true test.
The Jets passed, solidly, thrashing the Panthers 7-0 before a raucous crowd that clearly understood the importance of the game. It was Winnipeg's most lopsided win of the year and four Jets earned multiple points, led by Evander Kane who scored two goals, got two assists and brought his point total for the season to 46, a career high. The Jets also scored five goals in the third period, including one by Bryan Little on a bizarre five-on-one that seemed to baffle everyone involved.
"I was really nervously actually," said Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler, who got an assist on the play. "I looked up and I heard the crowd going crazy so I figured it's two on one, three on one, whatever. There was all five guys so I didn't know where to go with the puck. ... I've never seen that before, ever."
The win gave Winnipeg 70 points and put the Jets back in eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Washington which plays New Jersey Friday. Florida remains on top of the division with 72 points. The Panthers have also played three fewer games than Winnipeg.
Noel tried to put things into perspective afterward, noting that for much of the year Winnipeg has had trouble scoring even one goal per game.
"I'm not going to get too carried away on the seven goals," he said. "It was probably a fun night for a lot of people and stuff like that. But a win is a win. It gives us two points."
The Panthers had come into Winnipeg on a three-game winning streak and looked to be taking charge of the division. Florida had also beaten the Jets three times this season.
But Florida looked befuddled from the start Thursday, committing five giveaways in the first period, including one by defenceman Keaton Ellerby just four minutes into the game that led to Kane scoring Winnipeg's first goal. Jim Slater added another one two minutes later and it was 2-0 at the 6:03 mark.
The Panthers looked better in the second, outshooting Winnipeg 17-8. But nothing got by Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec Thursday and he earned his fourth shutout of the season, stopping 33 shots in total.
The third period became a Winnipeg free-for-all. Wellwood scored less than two minutes into the period, followed by Little on the five-on-one. That sent the MTS Centre crowd into a frenzy and Florida goalie Jose Theodore to the bench. Scott Clemmenesen came in but fared even worse, giving up three goals, by Nik Antropov, Kane and Wheeler, on just eight shots.
"It's definitely a man's game this time of year, and we did not look prepared," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said afterward.
"We gave them pretty much everything they got," added Florida defenceman Ed Jovanovski. "We knew they were a team that goes to the net hard. ... As a group, we knew that it was going to be a tough game. We didn't have an answer tonight. We just didn't have the push-back."
Kane said the Jets had to keep up the pressure.
"You don't want to sit back and let them slowly creep back into the game so I think it was really good to keep the pedal on the gas and not have any mercy," he said.
"We poured everything into tonight," added Wheeler.
Winnipeg has one more game on its eight-game home stand, Monday against Buffalo. So far the Jets have gone 4-1-2 during this stretch. But the rest of the season is far less home friendly. Winnipeg has 16 games remaining and nine are on the road, including one more against Florida and tough road matchups versus Vancouver and the New York Rangers. The Jets are just 11-17-4 away from the MTS Centre this season, something the team will have to change if it hopes to make the playoffs.
"For us it's a 16-game playoff series almost," Noel said. "We have to win."
As Thursday's game wound down, fans started chanting "We want first place".
That remains to be seen just yet.