WINNIPEG – After a frantic first period Blake Wheeler might have been forgotten if not for what he did in the third.
Wheeler scored two goals, including the winner, as the Winnipeg Jets beat the Minnesota Wild 6-4 on Friday in a game that featured a seven-goal first period.
Wheeler ended a scramble in front of the Minnesota net when he poked the puck under a prone Niklas Backstrom with 9:20 remaining in the third period for his 14th goal of the season, giving the Jets a 5-4 lead.
It was the ninth goal in December for Wheeler, who started the season with just five goals in his first 28 games.
“I think confidence plays into it,” he said of his recent success. “When the puck starts going in the net you find yourself getting into the scoring areas a little bit more. The puck seems to bounce your way a little bit more.”
Evander Kane, Olli Jokinen, Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom added goals for Winnipeg. Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine, Stephane Veilleux and Mikko Koivu were the goal scorers for Minnesota.
The Jets (17-18-5), who were coming off a humbling loss in Edmonton on Monday, finally managed to beat the Wild after losing each of the first three meetings between the teams.
It was a fourth straight loss for the Wild (20-14-5), who have now dropped six of their last eight games.
Neither team seemed interested in playing defence after the three-day Christmas break.
The Jets led 4-3 after a first period that saw seven goals scored in the first 7:04, and featured three lead changes.
“We don’t have the luxury of finding reasons for things not being OK,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo, who said the first period was clearly a by-product of the extended break. “We’re in a position where we have to make things right.”
Minnesota struck first when Heatley scored on a wide-open net after a pass from Jason Pominville 2:13 into the game. But the Jets grabbed the lead before the game was six minutes old thanks to a short-handed goal by Kane and a one-timer in the low slot by Jokinen.
“When they scored we responded, which was good to see,” Kane said.
It only took another 67 seconds for the Wild to go ahead 3-2, on goals by Fontaine and Veilleux. That ended Ondrej Pavelec’s outing. The Jets’ starting goalie smashed his stick en route to the dressing room after allowing three goals on six shots, giving way to backup Al Montoya.
Jets coach Claude Noel said the quick hook had more to do with his team’s sluggish play in its own zone than anything.
“I think our team needed a jolt,” he said.
Jets captain Andrew Ladd echoed the coach, saying that the team felt sympathy for the lack of support they provided for their goalkeeper.
“I thought Monty did a great job once he got in there,” Ladd said. “The first three goals, there was nothing Pav could’ve done about them, so it was more about trying to get some momentum for our group on the bench.”
After nearly eight scoreless minutes, the Jets once again claimed the lead on late-period goals from Wheeler and Byfuglien. Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom allowed four goals on 11 first-period shots, and finished with 32 saves on 37 total shots.
The lone goal in the second period came on a Wild power play, as a perfect passing sequence ended with an easy goal for Koivu to tie the game at 4-4.
That was the only blemish for Montoya, who stopped the other 22 shots he faced.
Enstrom added an empty-net goal from 175 feet with four seconds remaining.
The Wild won each of the three previous meetings by one goal, including a shootout victory on Nov. 23.
Both clubs return to action on Sunday, with the Jets travelling to Denver while the Wild head home to face the New York Islanders.
Notes: Zach Parise, dealing with a lower-body injury, missed a second straight game for the Wild. … The Jets were without defencemen Zach Bogosian (flu) and Mark Stuart, who was a late scratch with a lower-body injury after taking the morning skate. … The teams have one remaining meeting, in Winnipeg on April 7.