Lee Stempniak’s time in Winnipeg was short lived, but it still left an impression on the veteran.
Stempniak, who spent 18 games with the Jets last year after being acquired at the 2015 trade deadline, struck twice as his New Jersey Devils downed Winnipeg 3-1 on Saturday at the MTS Centre.
“It’s fun to be back. I enjoyed playing here,” Stempniak said. “(I’m) friends with a lot of the guys. (I’ve got) nothing but good memories and great things to say about the (Jets) organization.”
Winnipeg chose to move on from Stempniak in the off-season, even after announcing his willingness to sign. The 11-year veteran now has 14 goals and 36 points in 49 games with New Jersey.
Stempniak scored in the first and third period and Jacob Josefson added the other marker for the Devils in the second.
Winnipeg’s lone goal came late on the power play in the third by Dustin Byfuglien, his 12th of the season.
“The past few games, I don’t think the puck has been our friend,” Byfuglien said. “You just have to put your head down and keep working. Every team goes through it throughout the season.”
Corey Schneider made 22 saves and improved to 22-14-5 on the season while Connor Hellebuyck made 13 saves in a losing effort, falling to 11-9-1.
“It was a good team effort from us,” Stempniak said. “It was a huge game, trying to separate ourselves from teams right around us clustered for a playoff spot. It was a great team effort. We got big blocked shots from guys, good backchecks and great goaltending.”
New Jersey (25-19-5) turned a slow start into a 1-0 lead just past the midway point of the first period.
A comedy of errors — capped off with Toby Enstrom blowing a tire and taking out Blake Wheeler in the process — led to a 2-on-0 break for the Devils.
Mike Cammalleri, the immediate beneficiary of the gaffe, slid a pass to Stempniak, who needed just a tap to put the puck past Hellebuyck at 11:41.
The Jets (21-24-3) dominated the opening 15 minutes of the second period, putting eight shots on Schneider while not allowing a shot on Hellebuyck, but couldn’t score.
“I think, ideally, we’d like to get more (shot) volume to the net,” Schneider said. “Obviously, the more volume you get to the net the more chances you have of the puck going in. But you play to score sometimes. You get fewer shots when you’re defending your lead. If we were behind, I’m sure we would have had 25 to 30 shots. I think a bit of it is circumstantial.”
It took a Drew Stafford tripping penalty for the Devils to change the momentum, but it was all they needed as Josefson wired a one-time pass from David Schlemko on the power play for a 2-0 lead at 15:49.
Stempniak added his second on the night on a redirected shot from Cammalleri in the third.
Winnipeg would get on the scoreboard late as Byfuglien poked in a rebound that trickled in behind Schneider at 14:51.
“The morale is going to be low and it should be after you lose three games,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “Confidence is earned. The only other opportunity to change your fortunes is work a lot harder.”
Mathieu Perreault didn’t make it out for the second period. The club announced he would not return due to a lower-body injury after being hit by Devils forward Tuomo Ruutu late in the first.
Winnipeg continues a six-game homestand against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night. New Jersey caps of a two-game road trip with a meeting in Pittsburgh against the Penguins on the same night.