For all their struggles this season, the Winnipeg Jets are usually automatic when taking a lead into the third period.
Entering Tuesday’s game they were 21-1 when leading after two. Their opponent, the Florida Panthers, have had an awful time coming from behind, going 1-15-1 when trailing entering the final frame.
So with the Jets having dominated the first two periods and taking a 2-1 lead into the third, you would have thought that lead was safe, right?
Well, trends are bound to be bucked eventually, and the Panthers rallied for a 3-2 win.
The downward spiral actually started before the second period expired: Joel Armia took a hooking penalty with 22 seconds left, and then Andrew Copp took a slashing penalty deep in Florida territory on the penalty kill early in the third.
Right after Armia stepped back on the ice, Reilly Smith scored his second of the game to tie the game at 2. That’s when head coach Paul Maurice noticed his team start to play differently.
“We were out of sorts when it gets tied. We didn’t play the third period the way we played the first two. Our transition game changed, we slowed our transition through the neutral zone.”
Less than two minutes after Smith scored, ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr’s wrist shot ramped off the stick of Jacob Trouba and fluttered over the shoulder of a fooled Ondrej Pavelec to give Florida a lead they would not relinquish.
Smith opened the scoring in a first period that was dominated by the Jets. They held a 16-5 edge in shots over their former division rival but couldn’t get a single one past a stellar Roberto Luongo.
Winnipeg continued to control the pace and it paid off in the second. Dustin Byfuglien banged home a loose puck right in front of Luongo to tie the game, but the momentum was quickly stopped by a Drew Stafford hooking penalty.
Right as Stafford was stepping back on the ice, Andrew Copp found himself in an unfamiliar situation: completely wide open at the Panthers blue line. He caught a puck out of midair, settled it and went five-hole on Luongo to give the Jets the lead.
“He’s a great goalie and I was just trying to make sure I got something on net,” said Copp, whose goal was his second of the year and first since October. “Once the puck settled down I kind of went to my move. It was great to get the weight off the shoulders but obviously we’re worried about winning in here.”
That was all the offence Winnipeg would muster. They finished the game on a power play and despite pulling Pavelec to get the 6-on-4 advantage, they couldn’t muster a quality chance and time expired.
Through 40 minutes, you wouldn’t have known which team was leading their division and which was fighting for a lottery pick. But after the final frame was dominated by the Panthers, do the Jets regret not taking a bigger lead into that last period?
“You could be up more, but you shouldn’t be because their goaltender made all those saves. They pay him,” Maurice explained. “We were much better through two periods defensively. That was the foundation of what we had. We were simple with the puck and quick, so now all of a sudden we looked fast for the first time in quite some time.”
The Jets wound up outshooting the Panthers 32-22 but Luongo was up to the task, making 30 saves for the win.
On a lighter note, forward Mathieu Perreault was back after his wife gave birth to their first child Monday. He confirmed his daughter is indeed a leap day baby.
“Birthday every four years, so that’ll be awesome,” an exhausted Perreault said. “ It was a long day, took about 24 hours of work for my wife but it was definitely worth it. It was a great moment. Going to go see her now.”
The Jets play game two of their five-game homestand Thursday night against the New York Islanders. Puck drop is 7 p.m.