The Winnipeg Jets have faced a lot of good players this year but they had yet to face the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin.
Coming into Friday's game at the MTS Centre, Malkin had been one of the hottest players in the NHL. He'd scored six goals and earned 16 points in December alone, bringing his total for the season to 15 goals and 39 points. He also showed no ill effects of a knee injury that ended his season last year in February and held him back for seven games at the start of this season. "He's been at another level all over the rink," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said before the game.
The Jets didn't have to deal with Malkin the last time these teams played, a 2-1 Jet victory in October.
Winnipeg managed to handle Malkin for almost the entire game Friday. It was the other Penguins they couldn't control and Pittsburgh won easily 4-1.
The Jets were in an unfamiliar position Friday. They'd played the night before at the MTS Centre, thrashing Montreal 4-0, while Pittsburgh sat in a Winnipeg hotel and watched, having not played in three days. And it was easy to tell which team had rested almost from the start as Pittsburgh jumped faster on lose pucks and won more battles along the boards. The Penguins out shot Winnipeg 39 to 19 and seemed in control for much of the game.
"I thought that we looked like a team that played three games in four nights," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said after the game. "It doesn't sit well with me, I don't think it sits well with the players. The game kind of sits like a knot in your stomach but you are going to have to let it go."
Then he added: "I'm not going to sit here and criticize my team, if that's what you are asking me to do. That's not going to happen. I think we've had a good month, I'm not going to sit and judge us by this result."
The story most of Friday wasn't Malkin, it was Penguins' goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He gave his team some big saves and near heart stoppages. At one point he lost track of the puck as it bounced precariously around the front of the net. On another occasion he lost his stick and then made an outstanding glove save on a backhand shot by Jets forward Nik Antropov. Then he got called for tripping as he flailed away with his stick at the Jets' Kyle Wellwood. Fleury looked so wild at times the MTS Crowd raucously jeered him as the game wore on.
"I think the first was a little intense," Fleury said after the game. "It was fun, though, to have that action around the net."
Bylsma said Fleury was "outstanding" and was largely responsible for the win.
"He has played a lot good hockey and has been very good for us," Bylsma said. "Tonight when this game was in question, he had to make some big saves and then was strong in the third."
Winnipeg only managed five shots on goal in the first period but also missed some scoring chances. Forward Jim Slater broke lose during a Penguin power play but hit the cross bar. Alexander Burmistrov got another near breakaway but couldn't control the puck.
It was the Penguins who scored first when Joe Vitale flicked in a rebound after Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec stopped a shot from the point by Alexandre Picard.
The Penguins seemed to take charge as the second period started, pushing the play to the Jets repeatedly. That settled the crowd, which stopped chanting, cheering and jeering.
The Jets weathered the attacks and came back to tie it up half way through the second. Blake Wheeler made a pin point pass to Burmistrov who didn't miss this time, firing the puck by Fleury who was well out of position. That brought the crowd to life and fans resumed jeering Fleury.
Then Fleury caused more angst for the MTS crowd. He knocked his net slightly, jarring it lose. But just as the Jets Tanner Glass unloaded a long shot, Fleury pushed the net back farther. The puck went in, but the referees waved off the goal.
Just as the third period began, Malkin finally showed why he is so dangerous. Barely 22 seconds into the period, he pounced on a loose puck in front of the Jets net and passed it over to James Neal who snapped a shot by Pavelec.
"We tried to key on that line early on in the game," said Jet forward Tanner Glass who spent much of the game checking Malkin's line. "I thought we did a pretty good job of it in the first two periods. That first shift in the third obviously killed us."
Jordan Staal added a power play goal shortly afterward followed 40 seconds later by Pascal Dupuis. That made it 4-1 and Pittsburgh never looked back.
The loss puts the Jets at 16-14-5, with 37 points. They also missed a chance to climb into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
One concern for Winnipeg is that the team is now 0-5 on the second end of back to back games.
"Our record on back to back nights is not good," Noel conceded. " It will give me something to think about over the next two days."
But Noel wanted to look at the bigger picture. Especially the fact that the Jets have gone 7-3-1 so far this month, playing ten of those games at home. "We've had a good home stand," Noel said. "We've wanted to get home and make some hay and we've done that. So, I would sooner look at that than look at the other things."
The team now has a couple of days off and doesn't play again until Dec. 27 against Colorado in Denver. "We just need to move past this and take the days and get ourselves some clarity in there and move past this," said Noel.
As for the Penguins, they have won three straight and are now 20-11-4 with 44 points. They also don't play again until Dec. 27, at home against Carolina.
"We talked about the last four games going into the break, and guys came up some huge wins going into the break," said Bylsma. "I thought it was a big effort for our team, and there was a lot of focus. We'll take three wins and look to start it off again after we get two days of break."