Whatever confidence Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel hoped his players had built after their second win on Saturday got battered Monday.
After taking the play to the New York Rangers for most of the game, the Jets lost 2-1 before another packed MTS Centre. But how the loss occurred was about as painful as it gets in hockey, or just about any other sport.
Early in the third period with the score tied 1-1, the Jets seemed to have the Rangers beaten. They were firing shot after shot at Ranger goalie Martin Biron, who was starting in place of Henrik Lundqvist. The Jets outshot the Rangers 13 to 7 in the period and had every chance possible, including a breakaway by Evander Kane and a point-blank shot by Andrew Ladd.
Then in barely a minute everything turned.
Ranger winger Ruslan Fedotenko suddenly got free in front of the Jet goal. He was hauled down in a desperate effort by Jet forward Chris Thorburn who got two minutes for tripping. Barely 50 seconds into the penalty, Ranger captain Ryan Callahan came streaking along the left side of Jet goalie Chris Mason. With nowhere to shoot he fired the puck across the front of the goal. It could have slid harmlessly into the corner. But instead the puck hit the leg of Jet defenceman Zach Bogosian who was racing in to defend the goal and bounced into the net.
The Jets never recovered.
"I thought we probably deserved a better fate," Noel said after the game. "We had them on the run, they were basically just gasping for air ... We've got to find a way to just get the puck in there."
Bouncing pucks and third periods have been treacherous for the Jets this season. The team has been outscored 10-1 in the third this year and hasn't scored in the last 20 minutes since the first game on Oct. 9. In total the Jets have scored just 17 goals, while opponents have scored 26 on them.
Scoring "has been something that has not been easy for us to attain in any period," Noel said. "They are just not coming very easily."
Noel said five goals have been scored with the puck bouncing off a Jet player. "We have to manage that, we are going to have to teach that." He said defencemen simply have to know to "put your feet in a different direction. Because that is an issues for us. We've given them some goals."
Rangers coach John Tortorella credited his players' patience and courage for weathering the storm in the third. "We were hemmed in our end zone and not taking penalties, that's good. I just thought that we showed a lot of [courage]blocking shots," he said. The Rangers had 14 blocked shots in the game compared to eight for the Jets.
Tortorella also offered kudos to Biron, who hadn't played a full regular-season game in eight months. "You have to start with Biron, who played very well after I don't know how long. I thought that for the most part we defended well."
After the game Biron said he was thrilled with the win. "I felt pretty good," he said, adding that he kept to his game plan of not trying to be too challenging on plays or too aggressive. "We know that there is a lot of room to be better. Knowing that we are going home we are going to have to be better and we all know that."
The Rangers return to New York 3-2-2 for their home opener Thursday against Toronto. "We're looking forward to going home. Happy about that," said Tortorella. "We still have a lot of work to do to try to play the right way, but in this league, you grab your points and get out of there, because there are probably going to be times where we play one of our best games and lose."
As for Mason, he did not play badly either, in what was just his second start of the season. He stopped 15 of 17 shots and looked cool under New York's few, but feverish, bursts of action.
"It definitely sucks losing like that because I though the guys played really hard," Mason said after the game. "We had them hemmed in there for about a minute in that shift and a bounce of the puck and their guy got lose. Thorburn made a good desperation play and unfortunately there's a penalty and then they get a lucky goal like that."
Mason said the team had to get over the loss quickly, given that they have their next seven games on the road. "We want to start putting some wins together and get some points and get back in the race," he said. "I feel that we have a lot of positives that we can take from that."
Among the positives was the strong play of what has become Noel's favorite line of Nik Antropov, Alexander Burmistrov and Kane. Antropov got his second goal of the season, on a hard shot from close in that Biron never saw. And Burmistrov, who turned 20 last week, picked up an assist, making it five straight games in which he has gotten a point.
Noel tried to put the loss in perspective, noting that overall the team played hard and did many things right. "I don't think our players can sit there and hang their heads on the effort that they gave. I think we probably deserved a better fate and we didn't get it. So we move on and move to the next game. It does no bit of good to mull over negativity at the final result, we did everything right but win the game."
Shots on goal by the New York Rangers in the first period, which tied a season low.
Rangers set to go home
Winnipeg was the last stop on what had been the longest stretch of time the New York Rangers had been away from Madison Square Garden in the franchise's 86-year history. The trip, including exhibition games, covered almost 26,000 kilometres and included stops in six countries – Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Canada and the United States.
The Rangers play their first home game Thursday against Toronto, that's the latest home opener since 1948. The globe trotting was necessary because Madison Square Garden is going through an $800-million renovation. And the Rangers may have to do it again next year since the renovations are only partly completed.
Backups in net
Both goaltenders on Monday were backups. Chris Mason, 35, got his second start of the year for the Jets after a decent showing Saturday. Martin Biron, 34, played in place of New York stalwart Henrik Lundqvist, who had started in 37 straight games for the team dating to Feb. 7. Both did brief service Saturday – Mason in a win against Carolina after Jets coach Claude Noel pulled Ondrej Pavelec and Biron in a loss to Edmonton after Lundqvist hurt his foot.