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It was a battle of teams desperate to solidify their playoff fortunes at Bell MTS Place but only the Montreal Canadiens appeared seriously engaged Saturday night.
Montreal, razor-focused to remain in contention for the final wild-card berth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, controlled play for most of the game and scored once in each period while outshooting Winnipeg 44-24 en route to a 3-1 win over the Jets.
The Jets, playing their final home game of the regular season, couldn’t match the visitors’ energy level and slumped to their third straight loss.
“We didn’t like our game,” admitted Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “So many of the important things that are important to us that we need to do to function as a team – our gap (was) way off. Lots of ice for them, especially early in the first period and through the second. They came through our neutral zone so very easily, which would be the opposite of the way that we like to play. We had very little sustained play in the offensive zone.”
Winnipeg, 45-29-4 overall, remained in a tie with atop the Central Division with the Nashville Predators, who dropped a 5-2 decision to the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Jets have four games remaining, one more than the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners. The third-place St. Louis Blues, meanwhile, crept to within two points of the Jets and Preds with a 3-2 overtime win in New Jersey.
“Well, we’re trying to win a Central Division,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “You know, it might come as a surprise but those guys get paid, too, they’re NHL players. So as bad as we want to blow everyone out of our building and beat them 5-0, it’s not reality sometimes. You know, it’s not easy for us right now. Facing some adversity right now. We’re going to be a better team once we get through it.”
The Habs improved to 42-29-8 and remain tied with the Blue Jackets for the final wild-card with three games remaining. Columbus has one game in hand.
“I thought right from the get-go we were prepared and made good, solid passes, good decisions,” said Canadiens head coach Claude Julien, whose club swept the two-game season series with the Jets while outshooting Winnipeg a combined 96-58. “Our defensive game was really good. Our (defencemen) were doing a great job of really having a tight gap and forcing them not to come in easily on the rush.”
The visitors dominated the first period but didn’t hit the scoreboard until right-winger Joel Armia converted Phillip Danault’s perfect net-front feed on a power play with less than three minutes left. It was the former Jet’s 12th goal of the season.
Montreal outshot the hosts 16-5 in the the opening frame and in the middle period it was Armia, playing inspired hockey against his former teammates, who had two excellent chances to score only to be foiled by Connor Hellebuyck each time.
“The whole team played really, really well,” said Armia. “Fast, simple. I liked our game a lot… I think we just need to keep playing like that every game. Every game is big right now. Today we just kept it simple and played really fast I think through the whole 60 (minutes) so that was the key.”
Winnipeg’s best chances also came in the second period. The first came off the stick of defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, whose blast from the the right side beat Habs goaltender Carey Price cleanly only to carom off the post and out.
Byfuglien, making his return to the lineup after missing 19 games with an ankle injury, was unable to inspire his team. Hellebuyck was Winnipeg’s best player but was not performing miracles.
Then, with 55 seconds left in the period, a flicker of hope when Kevin Hayes cranked a shot off the crossbar behind Price after a perfect setup from Patrik Laine. Twenty seconds later, however, Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry’s point shot found the back of the net and the Canadiens were sitting pretty.
Mathieu Perreault, with his 15th goal of the season at 11:24 of the third, gave the hosts a fighting chance but Montreal’s Jordan Weal snuffed those hopes with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“Yeah we’ve just got to get back on track here,” said Perreault. “The last game (Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders was) kind of unacceptable to lose late in a game like that and tonight just wasn’t very good. We’ve clinched a playoff spot so I understand there’s you know maybe not as much to play for right now. But we’re gonna have to find a way to be better.”
The Jets head out on a four-game road trip beginning Monday in Chicago against the Blackhawks. Games in Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona will close out the regular season.
NOTEWORTHY: Montreal went 1-for-3 on the power play. Winnipeg did not have a power-play chance… The three stars were 1. Connor Hellebuyck; 2. Joel Armia; 3. Max Domi.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.