In a game that meant a whole lot more to the home team than the visitors, the Colorado Avalanche stayed alive for the division title with a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets Thursday night in Denver.
Thanks to their win in Minnesota on Tuesday, Winnipeg was locked into the 8th seed in the Western Conference, rendering their final regular season game meaningless in the standings.
The gameday roster reflected that as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt were all given the night off, while David Rittich got his first start in goal in almost a month.
The Jets had a one-goal lead in the second stanza, but the Avs scored three unanswered goals, including an empty-netter as the Jets had their three-game win streak snapped in game number 82.
“Everybody really battled,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “They scored a power play goal there and a lucky one on the third one and that’s kinda the game right there. But we want to be a workmanlike mentality here going into playoffs. We got a lot of skill in our lineup, but we know when we work hard, we’re usually rewarded for it.”
Axel-Jonsson Fjallby scored in his first game since March 4, while Kevin Stenlund notched the other marker for the Jets.
Karson Kuhlman, David Gustafsson, Dominic Toninato, Logan Stanley and Kyle Capobianco also got in the lineup with the Jets resting some of their regulars.
“We played really well,” said head coach Rick Bowness. “We didn’t give up much at all. They had hardly anything going. It’s disappointing to lose on that third goal, but that’s hockey.
“But our guys played very hard tonight. And we did a lot of good things. That’s an excellent hockey team over there obviously, playing for first place. So, they had a lot at stake, and we battled them every minute of the game.”
The Jets will play either Vegas or Edmonton in the first round and will discover their playoff opponent later on Thursday.
“A lot of fun hockey ahead of us,” said Jets forward Kyle Connor. “Tough, but we’ve been playing playoff hockey for the last month, so we’re ready for it.”
Stenlund left the game with an injury shortly after scoring his sixth goal of the season in the second period.
“It’s a lower-body,” Bowness said. “He should be fine.”
After a fairly uneventful start to the game, Colorado opened the scoring at the 13:33 mark of the first when Rittich couldn’t handle a rebound and Denis Malgin chipped it in to give the Avs the lead.
Early in the second, one of the Jets getting a rare chance to play made the most of his opportunity.
Playing in his first game since Mar. 4, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby put home a rebound past Alexandar Georgiev to tie the game just over two minutes into the second.
Dillion picked up an assist on the goal to set a new career high for points in a season with 23. He is also one of four Jets to suit up for all 82 regular season games, alongside Kyle Connor, Neal Pionk and Adam Lowry.
The game stayed tied for a while before Vlad Namestnikov took a tripping penalty with just over five minutes left in the middle frame.
But it was the Jets getting a shorthanded goal to take the lead. Morgan Barron collected a loose puck and skated down the wing, getting into the Avalanche end before sending a pass towards the slot that was deflected past Georgiev by Stenlund to put the Jets ahead.
The lead was short-lived, however, as the power play continued and Colorado made the Jets pay.
Mikko Rantanen blasted a one-timer over Rittich just 72 seconds after the Stenlund goal to draw even. It was Rantanen’s 55th of the season, setting a new franchise record for goals in a season.
The Avalanche carried a slim 17-16 edge in shots on goal into the third, and didn’t waste much time before grabbing the lead back.
After the Jets were turned aside on an odd-man rush, Evan Rodrigues used Dillon as a screen as he beat Rittich with a wrister from just inside the blue line to put Colorado in front at the 3:01 mark.
The defending champs got a great chance to double the lead with just over nine minutes left when Namestnikov hauled down Lars Eller on a breakaway, giving Eller a penalty shot but he was denied by Rittich to keep it a 3-2 game.
It stayed a one-goal game until the Jets pulled Rittich for an extra attacker with 96 seconds remaining. After a scramble off the draw, the puck came to Artturi Lehkonen and he sent the puck down the ice into the open cage to seal the win.
The Jets now wait to see if their playoff journey starts in Las Vegas or Edmonton early next week.
For Colorado, if they beat Nashville on the road Friday, they will win the Central Division. If they lose, then Dallas will claim the title.
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