The Winnipeg Jets had stormed back Tuesday from a 4-1 second period deficit to the St. Louis Blues to tie the game with less than six minutes left in regulation, but with 1:03 to go, Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec allowed a brutal game-winner on a Barret Jackman shot just inside center ice.
That sound you heard after the goal wasn't just the breaking hearts of Jets fans – it was all of Winnipeg heaving a sigh of relief that 25-year-old rookie netminder Michael Hutchinson has emerged this year to supplant Pavelec as the team's starter. As the Jets battle to secure a spot in the post-season, it's clear they're going to need Hutchinson to get them there.
Hutchinson had started the Jets' past six games and 13 of the last 17, so head coach Paul Maurice had him in net again to begin Tuesday's road game against the Blues. However, Hutchinson experienced an off-night – allowing four goals on just seven shots – and Pavelec replaced him 11:09 into the second period. The 27-year-old Pavelec stopped 19 of the next 20 shots he faced and made a number of impressive stops, but the devastating nature of the one shot he let in is what will stay lodged in the craw of fans. He's well-known to have surrendered goals at inopportune times during his four seasons in Winnipeg, and with Hutchinson providing a reasonable alternative (including a .915 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average), Maurice can't keep going back to him to have this process repeat itself. Not this late in the year, and not with this much on the line.
Pavelec has another two years on his contract at a $3.9 million salary cap hit, but Maurice and Jets management can't be concerned with that at the moment. They're too close to the organization's biggest accomplishment since returning to Winnipeg in 2011 to be focused on anything other than winning the next game.
At the moment – and his performance on Tuesday aside – Hutchinson is the goalie who gives them the best chance to do so.