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The Winnipeg Jets were guilty of a disaterous third-period implosion Thursday night, giving up the tying and winning goals with less than two minutes to play in a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders.
It may ultimately cost them the Central Division crown, or perhaps even home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Jets blew a golden opportunity to put considerable distance between Nashville and St. Louis. Now it’s a three-horse race with just over a week to go in the regular-season schedule.
Winnipeg drops to 45-28-4, two points ahead of the Predators and four up on the Blues.
If it felt familiar to fans, that’s because the Jets pretty much did the same thing a few weeks ago at home against San Jose in a similar late-game meltdown. They’ve now lost eight times this year when leading after two periods, which should be of major concern. This team just can’t seem to lock things down, especially lately.
Casey Cizikas scored with 1:46 left in the third period after the Jets repeatedly failed to clear the zone and got trapped on an extended shift. Still reeling from the tying goal, Jordan Eberle scored the winner just 33 seconds later, with Winnipeg players once again caught flat-footed.
It was a huge win for the Islanders, who are also in a three-way battle for top spot in the Metropolitan Division. New York improves to 45-26-7, into second place, two points up on Pittsburgh and three back of Washington.
New York plays a big, heavy game under first-year coach Barry Trotz, and this one had the feel of a playoff-style match from the outset, with plenty of offence mixed in for good measure. That was a bit of a surprise, considering no team surrenders fewer goals per game this season than the Islanders.
Winnipeg was looking for a solid bounceback after a disappointing 5-2 loss on Monday night to Dallas. Adam Lowry wasted no time giving his team a hot start, re-directing a Brandon Tanev wraparound attempt off his skate past Robin Lehner just 13 seconds into the game.
The goal was Lowry’s 10th of the year, giving Winnipeg 11 different forwards to hit double-digits this season. That’s the kind of well-rounded, balanced attack that can make teams like the Jets difficult to defend against.
Lowry did it again at 6:11 of the opening period, this time tipping a Jacob Trouba point shot. It was another solid shift from the line of Lowry, Tanev and Bryan Little, which isn’t a whole lot of fun to play against for opponents.
The Islanders cut the deficit in half just past the midway mark of the period, as a poor Mark Scheifele puck decision led to a costly turnover. Mathew Barzal, the flashy New York forward who hadn’t scored in 19 previous games, snuck in behind the Winnipeg defence and beat Connor Hellebuyck with a wrister.
Tanev restored the two-goal lead just 3:46 into the middle frame, taking advantage of two New York players who had their sticks break within seconds of each other. He got the puck in the slot, walked in and ripped a shot past Lehner.
But then penalty troubles caught up to the Jets. A poor line change led to a too many men on the ice infraction, and then Tyler Myers took a needless cross-checking penalty just 28 seconds into the kill.
The Islanders made them pay as Ryan Pulock’s point shot was tipped by Anders Lee on the ensuing five-on-three to make it a one-goal game.
Mathieu Perreault then took back-to-back penalties later in the period, which Winnipeg managed to kill off. But they were playing a very dangerous game. Hellebuyck faced 17 shots in the middle frame and was the main reason the Jets went into the intermission still ahead.
Scheifele appeared to give the Jets some breathing room when he tipped a Trouba blast past Lehner 6:46 into the third period, now with Winnipeg on the power play. Scheifele’s team-leading 36th continues to add to his career-best, which was previously 32.
But it wouldn’t be enough.
Eberle brought the visitors back within one at 7:49, knocking home a loose puck during a goalmouth scramble. And then came the bang-bang goals by Cizikas and Eberle to wrestle two valuable points away from Winnipeg.
The Jets wrap up the home portion of their regular-season schedule with a Saturday night visit from the Montreal Canadiens, who are fighting for their playoff lives after losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight to fall out of a wild card spot. Then it’s on the road for the final four games of the campaign before the playoffs begin.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.