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Despite slow start, Jets finish strong with 7-3 win over Golden Knights

It took the Winnipeg Jets exactly 12 minutes and 26 seconds to register their first shot on goal Tuesday night, an event that was met with a mocking roar from many in attendance at Canada Life Centre. And while Dylan DeMelo’s harmless wrister from the blue-line caused no damage, the restless crowd’s response to the team’s sleepy start apparently did.

“When you get the Bronx cheer at home it kind of pisses everyone off,” is how captain Blake Wheeler put it during the first intermission in a nationally televised interview with TSN.

Hey, whatever gets the motor running. Because the Jets sure looked like a different team from that point on, firing on all cylinders in an impressive 7-3 victory over the struggling Vegas Golden Knights that pulls them to within two points of the final Western Conference playoff spot.

“The way I look at it, our fans pay good money to come watch us play. Say whatever you want, boo us, cheer us, that’s your perogative when you come to the building. We love our fans. I think that’s showed over the years, I think we’ve been a real good home team and fed off our crowd over the years,” Wheeler explained following the game.

“When you hear a little jeer from the crowd after you get your first shot, you know what it’s for. LIke I said, it’s their perogative, doesn’t mean you have to love it. I think tonight they sparked us, it got us going, we scored two goals right after that. Hopefully it doesn’t happen often, but tonight it worked.”

Winnipeg improves to 28-23-10, including 4-1-0 in the last five and 6-2-1 in the past nine. In other words, they’re heating up at the right time. Not so much for the visitors from Sin City, who just finished a miserable five-game road trip by losing every game in regulation. They are now 32-26-4 and holding on to the final wildcard spot by a thread.

With apologies to Wheeler, there were a few other things that happened around the midway mark of the opening frame that could be seen as the proverbial turning point. Logan Stanley dropped the gloves with Vegas forward (and Winnipeg product) Keegan Kolesar right off a face-off, each player no doubt looking to provide a spark. Give the decision to the towering Stanley, who landed a couple big blows and ultimately wrestled Kolesar to the ice.

“Just trying to get the fans into it. It’s a big game. You know we’re trying to catch them in the standings. I know Keegan, I have a lot of respect for him. And he wanted to go. It was a good fight,” said Stanley.

Then came a thunderous hit from Adam Lowry on Nicolas Hague that got the downtown barn rocking, one of his team-leading 11 checks on the game. And then came the first shot, followed in short order by eight more in short order. Two of them found the net behind former Jets backup goalie Laurent Brossoit, who was making his return to Winnipeg.

First it was Wheeler, turning back the clock a bit and showing some razzle-dazzle as he found an open lane to the net and roofed a shot past his former teammate. His ninth of the year, coming at 18:08 of the opening frame, will certainly make the highlight reels. Then it was Kyle Connor’s turn, as the club’s leading scorer matched a career-high with his 38th of the season only 33 seconds later.

Vegas cut the deficit in half at 6:49 of the middle frame, as Nicolas Roy was the beneficiary of a bouncing puck and fired a strike past Connor Hellebuyck. But the Jets stormed back, quickly opening up an even bigger lead.

<p>Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck makes a save on Vegas Golden Knights’ Nolan Patrick during the third period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade</p>
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Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck makes a save on Vegas Golden Knights’ Nolan Patrick during the third period. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade

Nikolaj Ehlers’ pass attempt went off Chandler Stephenson’s leg and right back on to the stick of the skilled Jets winger, who beat Brossoit up high for his 16th at 9:04. Then it was Stanley getting in on the act, this time using his hands for good instead of evil as he fired a rocket to the top corner at 11:09. It’s the first-ever Gordie Howe hat trick for Stanley, who had the scrap and an assist on Connor’s goal prior to scoring his first of the year.

“I wouldn’t say I work on that one too much. I looked up, saw a hole, made a shot and lucky enough it went in,” Stanley said with a smirk.

The big guy known as Stan-Zilla to his teammates was fired up, too, raising his arms in celebration and pounding the glass to a thunderous ovation. It also spelled the end of the night for Brossoit, who was given a video tribute earlier in the game. He was yanked after giving up four goals on 13 shots.

Logan Thompson came on in relief, and was greeted by a Mark Scheifele snipe at 18:25 of a terrific second period for the Jets. It’s the 23rd of the year for Scheifele.

Alex Pietrangelo brought the visitors a bit closer with a power play blast through traffic at 4:34 of the final frame, but that’s as close as they’d get. Josh Morrissey matched a career-high with his eighth of the year on the power play at 10:33, and then Lowry finished off his impressive night with a silky-smooth set of moves on a shorthanded breakaway at 13:34. He’s now got nine goals, with three of them coming with his team down a player.

Connor finished with a three-point outing (one goal, two assists), while Stanley, Wheeler and Scheifele all had a goal and assist. Hellebuyck stopped 35 of 38 shots for the victory.

Vegas is missing a boatload of players due to injury, including No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner, forwards Mark Stone, Reilly Smith and Mattias Janmark, and defencemen Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb. They are in a world of hurt, and a team expected to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender is in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.

Winnipeg was also without a key forward as Andrew Copp was kept out of the lineup, 48 hours after taking a high hit from St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist. Although he’s passed concussion-protocol testing, the pending unrestricted free agent who could be a valuable trade chip by next Monday’s deadline was held out.

Of course, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff may be loathe to move anyone if his team keeps playing the way they have recently.

“We play Boston Friday. That’s it,” Wheeler said when asked the significance of two more valuable points. “We’ve just to go keep winning. Keep winning. There’s so much hockey left to play that it doesn’t matter. It’s good to be playing meaningful games, meaningful hockey. We’ve got to just keep trying to win games.”

Indeed, that next opportunity comes Friday, when the Jets close out this two-game homestand by hosting the Bruins.


Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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