In a season that’s been filled with plenty of bitter disappointment, the Winnipeg Jets wrote a feel-good story on Wednesday night.
Goaltender Eric Comrie, who might just be the nicest guy in the league, picked up his first-ever NHL shutout as his club beat Philadelphia 4-0 at Canada Life Centre. The 26-year-old stopped all 35 shots he faced, including seven during a chaotic late third period power play that turned into a six-on-four when the Flyers pulled their netminder for the extra attacker.
“It feels really good. It’s a happy moment for myself. A lot of hard work went into that,” said Comrie, who quickly turned the attention to his teammates as is his style. “A lot of hard work from the guys. They played a fantastic game and made it real easy for myself to see the puck and make a lot of easy saves because they were playing as good as they could.”
The veteran of 207 American Hockey League games — and holder of several Manitoba Moose franchise records — needed his 27th big-league appearance to finally get a goose-egg.
“I don’t think it’s as much as I dream of my first game or my first win, but it’s definitely up there, for sure,” said Comrie, who was making his 15th start of the year as Connor Hellebuyck was given the night off.
Winnipeg has now won two straight games on its season-ending four-game homestand to improve to 37-32-11. Philadelphia falls to 25-45-11.
Comrie’s clean sheet wasn’t the only significant achievement 13,383 fans at the downtown rink had to cheer. Forward Kyle Connor continued his magical campaign by re-writing the Jets 2.0 history books. He scored once (an empty-netter in the final minute) and added two assists, giving him 92 points on the year which eclipses the 91 posted by captain Blake Wheeler during both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons as the most since the NHL’s return to River City.
“It’s a pretty cool moment. There’s been some tremendous players come before me, still on this team, playing with them. It’s pretty cool,” said Connor, 25, who recently passed Patrik Laine’s 44 tallies in 2017-18 for most goals in a single season.
“You guys know me by now. Not like I’m popping champagne because I hit a certain amount of goals or something. You expect it of yourself. You put in all the hard work and so when the results come, you’re ready for it, you’re ready for this stage.”
Not to be outdone, 23-year-old centre Pierre-Luc Dubois set a new career-high with his 28th goal of the year to open the scoring early in the first period. His previous best of 27 came in 2018-19 with Columbus.
Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, who is now just one off his career-high of 29 goals, had the other goals for the Jets during the second period, with each assisting on the other.
Comrie is in his second stint with Winnipeg, after being repeatedly passed around the waiver wire like a hot potato over the previous two years that included brief stops in Detroit, Arizona and New Jersey. He was given the chance to back up Hellebuyck this year with the Jets having no salary cap room to retain Laurent Brossoit or sign another proven NHL puck-stopper.
All he’s done while making the league minimum salary is post impressive 9-5-1 record with a 2.55 goals-against-average and sparkling .921 save-percentage.
“Good for Eric. Like, this is a kid that has put in his time. He’s done a lot of work and (is) very deserving,” said interim coach Dave Lowry. “I think he’s a consummate teammate. This is a kid — and I say it every day — he is the hardest working guy. He comes every day, he loves the game. He enjoys what he does. He’s the hardest working guy and guys notice that. And they enjoy an opportunity to watch him be successful.”
Lowry said seeing so many players close or surpassing previous highs — defenceman Josh Morrissey has already shattered his offensive highs and had another assist Wednesday — serves up some hope for the future in a disappointing year that will end without a playoff appearance.
“The biggest thing is believing that we have a very good group here and looking at it as being a one-off,” said Lowry. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have had career years. From a personal standpoint, I know that they’d all trade it in to be playing meaningful games next week.”
The Jets went 2-for-5 on the power play and killed off all four minors they took. Defenceman Nate Schmidt and forward Zach Sanford both returned to the lineup after missing Sunday’s game against Colorado, a 4-1 victory, with minor injuries. Logan Stanley and Adam Brooks were healthy scratches in their place.
Winnipeg has two meaningless tilts left, with Calgary in town on Friday and Seattle on Sunday. Expect Hellebuyck and Comrie to each get one more appearance net. Ehlers will no doubt like to score a couple to hit 30 for the first time, while a run at 50 isn’t totally out of the question for Connor, who missed three games earlier in the year after testing positive for COVID-19.
“It’s what we can control, the day at hand, one day at a time and the task at hand right now, to go out there and play for each other,” said Connor. “It feels real good to get a win, stack a couple. Only a couple games left, but this means a lot as a team to build the right way. I think that more so than personal accolades.”
FIRST-ROUNDER IN THE FOLD: The Jets have added another promising young prospect to the pipeline.
Centre Chaz Lucius signed a three-year, entry-level contract Wednesday with an average annual value in the NHL of US $1,325,000 starting next season. The 18-year-old will leave the University of Minnesota, where he just completed his freshman season with the Golden Gophers. He had 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 24 games this year,
Lucius was drafted in the first round, 19th overall, by Winnipeg last summer. The native of Kansas was part of the United States World Junior team in December but played just one game before COVID-19 shut the event down.
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