Third period lapse costs Jets against potent Pens

PITTSBURGH — The Winnipeg Jets played a total of 59 minutes and 51 seconds of terrific regulation-time hockey on Sunday afternoon, keeping one of the NHL’s most potent teams completely in check. Problem is, the game is 60 minutes in length. And what happened in those other nine very painful seconds ultimately cost the club a precious point.

A 2-0 third-period lead vanished in basically the blink of an eye as the Pittsburgh Penguins sprang to life, potted a pair and ultimately skated away with a 3-2 shootout victory at PPG Paints Arena. Talk about a gut punch.

“You know, the game goes from a shutout and what should be a shutout to an overtime shootout loss. It sucks,” is how Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck summed it up, no doubt feeling the sting even more since his puck-handling blunder led directly to the tying goal. “It felt like we deserved to win.”

Indeed, a solid argument could be made that Jets got the short of the hockey stick in this one. But such is life right now for a fragile team that wraps up a tough four-game road trip without a victory, going 0-2-2.

“I thought we played a real solid game. We had a nine second lapse where they scored two goals,” said interim head coach Dave Lowry. “We came into this game, we played with a purpose, we played with a great level of desperation, we generated opportunities, and like I said, it’s nine seconds that end up hurting you.”

The week began with Winnipeg racing out to a 2-0 first period lead in Washington on Tuesday, only to fall 4-3 in overtime. They followed that up with a 5-2 loss in Nashville on Thursday, then opened the scoring in Boston on Saturday afternoon before dropping a 3-2 decision in regulation. Facing a mighty, rested Penguins team now back to full health with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, this had the potential to get ugly.

Except it was the road-weary Jets who controlled the play for most of the day, including making the Penguins pay a physical price nearly every time they touched the puck. Brenden Dillon bloodied Teddy Blueger with a huge hit in the opening frame. Nathan Beaulieu rocked Brock McGinn, then got the best of Brian Boyle in an ensuing scrap. All told, Winnipeg outhit the hosts by a whopping 47-19 total, obliterating their single-game high this season which had been 39. Neal Pionk had nine hits alone, the most by any Jets player this year.

“They are a good team. They have a lot of speed and a lot of skill. Usually those kinds of teams don’t want to play that kind of game. I think we had a focus of using our forecheck and our size. We were able to create some chances from it,” Dillon said of the rock ‘em, sock ‘em approach. “As a whole, that’s something that when we are playing to our strengths, although we have a lot of speed, we have some physicality too, and usually can open up some space when that happens.”

In addition to the guys at the other end of the rink, the Jets also hit the net early. Captain Blake Wheeler took a feed from Mark Scheifele and burying his second goal of the year just 3:28 into the game. It was just the kind of start they were looking for playing for a second time in 22 hours. Winnipeg took a 2-0 lead at 8:11 of the second when Kyle Connor fired a perfect wrist shot on the power play, just under the crossbar, for his team-leading 22nd. Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry had made a half-dozen five alarm saves up to that point, and also had help from a couple posts along the way.

As the game crept into the final frame, and the visitors showed no signs of wearing down, it seemed like that might be enough to get out of town with a big win. But then disaster struck in about the time it takes to say “What the heck just happened?”

First up was Malkin passing a puck to teammate Kasperi Kapanen that went off his skate and beat a surprised Hellebuyck at 6:55. That certainly gave the Penguins, and their fans, some momentum. They didn’t need long to capitalize on it, as a dumped-in puck off the ensuing faceoff was stopped behind the net by Hellebuyck, who tried to rim it around the boards and put it right on the stick of Jeff Carter. The veteran immediately shot it back, finding enough of the open net before Hellebuyck could get back and seal it off.

“The first one goes off a skate. I made a pretty good push at it, but you can’t really expect it to go off a skate. I’m expecting a stick, and that’s a good foot or two away from where I’m expecting that puck to go. Which stinks,” said Hellebuyck, who started an 11th straight game and 25th of the last 27.

“The second one, I just had a late decision, because it looked like it was going to be icing for a second. Then when I finally decided my only play was to rip it behind the net. They just had a guy wide open right there. Just seems kind of like my luck right now. I’m getting fanned on, I’m getting tipped on, I’m putting pucks right on their tape I guess if you want to call it that.”

Although there were some nervous moments to follow, the Jets managed to right the ship and get it to overtime, for what was undoubtedly one of the most entertaining three-on-three competitions you’ll see.

There was chaos at both ends, including some controversy when Crosby bowled over Hellebuyck. There was no call on the play, and the Jets felt like they got shafted all day by the officiating. Winnipeg had just one power play, scoring on it, but were shorthanded four different times. They managed to kill off all four, and even generated some of their most dangerous offensive looks while down a man.

“It was a blast. You had everything from scoring chances to great defensive plays to big saves, physicality and stuff after the whistle,” said Dillon. “It was an emotional game and both sides understood how big the points were. You almost wish there could have been a bit more overtime so we could have had it settled that way.”

Off to a shootout they went, where Crosby was the only one who managed to light the lamp. He actually took a slashing penalty just as the five minutes of overtime ended, but there’s no NHL rule that causes it to carry over into the breakaway contest. Connor (crossbar), Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois were all denied by Jarry.

“I liked the way that we stayed in the fight right until the end. I really liked the way that we started the game,” said Lowry. “We had a very good answer to coming back from a game (Saturday) and our preparation was good. Our leadership guys got our team ready to play. You know, we’re in control of the hockey game for the most part and that’s a positive. I had a lot of guys that they played and committed to winning a hockey game.”

Hellebuyck finished with 36 saves in regulation and overtime, while Jarry had 27. Defencemen Dylan DeMelo and Logan Stanley were both scratched Sunday with minor injuries, allowing Beaulieu to come back into the lineup. Up front, Evgeny Svechnikov was a healthy scratch for a second straight game.

This concludes a stretch in which the Jets played eight straight games in enemy territory to begin January, going 3-3-2 in that span. Overall, Winnipeg is now 17-14-7 as they head home for a pair of games this week at Canada Life Centre — Tuesday against Florida, Thursday against Vancouver — in front of just 250 fans due to ongoing public health orders.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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