WINNIPEG – The Eastern Conference is not leaving the Winnipeg Jets with any choice but to continue winning if they wish to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs and end a six-season drought.
The Jets captured a 4-3 overtime win Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes at MTS Centre, running their winning streak to a season-high five games. Dustin Byfuglien won it when he finished a 2-on-1 rush by banging Andrew Ladd's rebound past goaltender Justin Peters 1:23 into overtime.
"We keep making it tough on ourselves," Ladd said of the Jets, who surrendered a late 3-1 lead, "but like we've said, the main thing is getting two points."
But the New York Rangers' win Thursday left the Jets (23-19-2) stranded in ninth place, from where they have struggled to free themselves for much of this month after a five-game losing streak nearly sunk their season.
Carolina's Alexander Semin scored the tying goal with 1:12 left in regulation as the Jets failed to hold a two-goal lead in the third period for the second time in as many games. They also surrendered a two-goal lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night before winning 4-3 in a shootout.
"I don't think it's the way you draw it up to go like this," Jets coach Claude Noel said, "but we found a way to win. So that's a good thing, and we've done it twice in a row."
Unlike most of the Eastern Conference field, however, the Jets have multiple pathways to the postseason. Pushing aside the Washington Capitals atop the Southeast Division would guarantee the Jets the third seed. Winnipeg also could get into the playoffs by squeezing out one of the Ottawa Senators (52 points), New York Islanders (51) or Rangers.
Winnipeg did make up some ground on Washington, whose eight-game winning streak ended against the Senators on Thursday. The Jets sit two points behind the Capitals for the division lead. The Islanders also won, leaving them three points ahead of the Jets, while the Senators are up by four points.
The Jets' six-game homestand ends Saturday afternoon when the Islanders come to MTS Centre. After that, Winnipeg faces back-to-back road games against Washington and the Buffalo Sabres before the Jets end the regular season at home against the Montreal Canadiens next Thursday.
"We can enjoy this for a couple of more minutes and get ready for Saturday," Byfuglien said. "This is the fun time of the year. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, and we've got to just keep going."
Zach Bogosian opened the scoring for the Jets in the first period and sees the Jets' pressure-packed schedule as a good tune-up for the playoff berth that they expect to earn.
"I guess you feel the pressure a little bit," Bogosian said, "but as professionals, you're just playing another game. I think you've got to get the two points, and that's what we've done the last little bit here. But as far as how intense the games are, and how close they've been, I guess that can roll over to somewhat of a playoff series.
Noel also chose to see the Jets' predicament as a positive.
"The games mean more," Noel said, "so that's a good thing for us. We're dealing with some pressure and stress."
Peters, who beat the Jets 3-1 at MTS Centre on March 30, stopped 27 shots in a return engagement. Ondrej Pavelec started for the 20th time in 21 games and made 24 saves.
Noel's first line again powered the Jets. Ladd's three-assist evening moved his scoring streak to six games, tying a career high. Blake Wheeler added a goal and two assists, while Bryan Little chipped in two assists. Ladd and Wheeler each have a pair of goals and four assists in the Jets' past two games.
Bogosian provided early offense for the Jets, who controlled the first period and outshot the Hurricanes 10-3. Paul Postma created a two-goal advantage on the power play halfway through the middle period before Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu connected two minutes later on his first goal of the season to make it 2-1.
Wheeler rebuilt the Jets' two-goal lead with 12:20 left in regulation, taking a Little pass that split the defense before beating Peters under the crossbar. But Ruutu scratched away another Winnipeg lead fewer than four minutes later when he tipped Marc-Andre Bergeron's rising point shot behind Pavelec to make it 3-2 and set up Semin's late finish.
Ruutu had hip surgery this past December and missed the first 29 games of the season. He had not scored since April 3, 2012, before his two-goal performance against the Jets.
"It feels good, to be honest," Ruutu said. "It has been a tough year for me. I have been rehabbing pretty much for 11 months straight. It just feels good to be back out there. It feels good to be playing, but it's nice to score so that I don't [have] to go [a] season without a goal. I got the first out of the way."
The Hurricanes have won just twice in an 18-game stretch going back to March 14, but Carolina coach Kirk Muller praised his team afterward.
"I've been saying it for a while," Muller said. "It's the way our guys have been playing. We haven't gotten the breaks or results that, to be honest, we've really deserved. It's unfortunate because I'm really proud of the guys and the way they've been battling and playing hard and playing well. When it does change, they're going to get rewarded, and it will pay off somewhere along the line."
Carolina fell behind 12 minutes into the game after Little bounced the puck into the slot off a rush. Bogosian outraced two Carolina defenders to the skidding puck. Peters hesitated, allowing Bogosian to reach the puck and stab it past the goaltender's outreached stick.
Pavelec had faced 10 shots by the game's midpoint, and held the Jets in the game during a second-period Hurricanes power play. He fended off two prime Carolina scoring opportunities before sprawling across his crease to smother Faulk's crease-edge chance.
"How good was he during that five-minute stretch?" Noel asked rhetorically. "He was through the roof."
Winnipeg's power play has struggled all season, ranked 28th in the League. Even against a Carolina penalty kill that ranked 27th, the Jets' woes continued during their first three man-advantage opportunities.
But Winnipeg finally connected on its fourth opportunity after Jordan Staal's offensive-zone minor during Carolina's first power play. Moments after Pavelec's saves, Wheeler reached Postma from the left boards with a pass to the right circle through three defenders. Postma settled the puck and lifted it under the crossbar at 8:27.
Ruutu scored his first goal when he slipped into the slot and snapped a stick-side shot past Pavelec at 10:38.