WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets hit the road again after back-to-back home wins that make a playoff run seem like a strong possibility, thanks in large part to the hot glove of Ondrej Pavelec.
They now have sole possession of the eighth and final spot in the East and haven't lost a game in regulation time since March 5. Coach Claude Noel and the players agree Pavelec's goaltending is a big reason for their success.
"He's been our best player the last little bit here, just giving us a chance to win every night and making big saves," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd.
"Last night (it was) the breakaway and the penalty shot, just huge stops like that that keep us in the game and give us momentum and allow us to go back and play."
Pavelec was key as the Jets shut down the New York Rangers 3-1, after doing the same thing to the Leafs on Tuesday when they came away with a convincing 5-2 win. It was their strongest home game so far this season, as they matched the Leafs' physical style of play.
Noel says some of the saves Pavelec has made are unbelievable and come at key times, such as stopping Marian Gaborik's penalty shot in the first period Thursday night.
"He continues to make those saves and I think that it's a reflection . . . a big reason why we are where we are right now," he said.
Jets backup netminder Al Montoya has also been strong in the few games he's played but injuries have kept him on the bench perhaps more than might otherwise be the case.
Pavelec, just 25, has already played more games for the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise than any other netminder. He passed Kari Lehtonen six games ago.
This season, only Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov and Nashville's Pekka Rinne have played more NHL games.
At six-foot-three and 220 pounds, he's very much the new breed of NHL netminder—big, strong and quick. But there have been times when his performance has led some to question his ability to make it into the elite ranks of NHL netminders.
The Czech native, who played a couple of junior seasons with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the QMJHL, has worked hard to perfect his technique over the last couple of seasons and eliminate some of the inconsistency.
The Jets showed their confidence in Pavelec when they signed him to a five-year, $19.5-million contract and he currently sits in 10th among NHL netminders with a win-loss record of 11-11-2.
But his save percentage of .905 and goals against average of 2.70 rank him further down the list of starters. His goals against average puts him in 24th spot.
With a question mark over Montoya's ability to play, the team is travelling with three goalies this weekend as it visits Toronto and Ottawa. They called up Eddie Pasquale from the St. John's IceCaps.
With so much on the line, however, it seems unlikely Pavelec will get much rest anyway.
Noel confesses he has trouble even letting his fourth line take to the ice right now as he tries to keep the wins coming.
"It's not that I don't trust them, the games are so close one mistake becomes the difference in the game and it's so pivotal," he said.
And what does Pavelec have to say about his game? He tries to spread the credit around.
"To be a success, you need a team effort," he said as he prepared for the trip to Toronto.
"I just try to help the team to get a win and that's all every day it's all about. I'm happy right now but it could be better."