WINNIPEG – The schedule may have said Game 45, but it felt like the playoffs for John Tavares.
And when the Islanders star scored the game-winner in a 5-4 shootout win, New York’s big victory put a serious dent in the Winnipeg Jets’ playoff hopes.
“It’s April, there’s a team right behind us. There’s a lot on the line,” Tavares said. “I think we knew it would have a playoff atmosphere. You could sense it in the locker-room before the game, and during the game.”
Tavares and Brad Boyes both beat Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec in the shootout, while Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd replied against New York’s Evgeni Nabokov.
The win lifted the Islanders (24-16-5) into sixth place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs who beat the Ottawa Senators 4-1 later Saturday to clinch a playoff spot.
“Good two points for us,” Isles head coach Jack Capuano said. “It was loud, it was a great atmosphere and it was one of the quickest games I’ve been involved in so it was a track meet for sure.”
The Jets (23-19-3) have 49 points and are now a point back of the idle eighth-place New York Rangers, who also have a game in hand.
Winnipeg heads on the road for games against Buffalo on Monday and a key Tuesday matchup with the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals (52 points), who beat Montreal 5-1 on Saturday night.
Nabokov made 24 saves in the Islanders’ victory, while Pavelec faced 33 shots as the Jets’ winning streak stopped at five games.
There was plenty of nail biting for the sold-out crowd at MTS Centre as the Isles led 2-1 after the first period and the score was tied 3-3 heading to the third.
Michael Grabner redirected an Andrew McDonald feed past Pavelec to give New York a 4-3 lead at 9:13, but Bryan Little tied it again at 17:59, just seven seconds after Isles defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky was called for interference.
Little made a head’s up move on the play. A rebound sent the puck at Little’s left skate and he kicked it over to his stick before beating Nabokov.
“It was an emotional game,” Little said. “We put everything we had into it and kept fighting our way back into the game.”
The Islanders got a goal and assist each from Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey, while Matt Martin also scored. Kyle Okposo and Visnovsky both chipped in with a pair of assists.
Kyle Wellwood scored a pair of goals for Winnipeg, while Zach Bogosian, who left the game late in the third after a heavy hit, added the other.
“It was just a team effort,” Okposo said. “It was a really good hockey game, a playoff-type atmosphere, I think.
“There were a lot of momentum swings throughout the game.”
Jets head coach Claude Noel took the positive when asked if he saw the loss as a point gained or a point lost.
“I think it’s a point gained for me,” he said. “We chased the game. It was a difficult game to play. We knew the opponent, they played the way we thought.”
Noel had pulled Pavelec as soon as Visnovsky got called for interference with 2:08 left in the third.
“They pull their goalie, they win a faceoff, they score,” Capuano said. “I mean, that’s a good team, that’s one of the best teams that we’ve played all year.”
Notes: The Islanders are 17-3-3 this season when scoring first. … Winnipeg forward Olli Jokinen left the ice after his first shift of the game with what the Jets called a lower-body injury. … New York continues its road trip with a game in Carolina on Tuesday.