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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Kyle Connor was scoring goals not long after he took his first strides on a pair of kiddie blades back home in Michigan.
The dynamic 22-year-old Winnipeg Jets winger hasn’t stopped.
Forget about a sophomore jinx for Connor. He burst from the gate with a goal in each of Winnipeg’s first three games of the 2018-19 season and had six tallies through a dozen contests. He’s maintained momentum, scoring his 28th of the season Monday to help lift the visiting Jets to a 3-2 triumph over the Los Angeles Kings.
He’s got the gift of being a game-changer, as his three overtime goals during his rookie season and 11 game-winners over 168 career games demonstrate, but Connor, third in team goal-scoring behind Mark Scheifele (34) and Patrik Laine (29) prior to Wednesday’s meeting with the host Anaheim Ducks, isn’t focusing on the pucks that go in.
The 6-1, 185-pound left-winger has been lapping up the Kool-Aid distributed by head coach Paul Maurice, who continues to preach the overall benefits of sound, gritty defensive hockey.
“We’ve really been working on our defensive-zone details and structure, so it’s been nice to see the results lately. The simple game can be so effective for us. People get caught up in the amount of offence we have, but we’re probably a better club when we stay really structured, focus on that good defensive play,” Connor said in a recent chat.
Winnipeg was down to just 10 games left Wednesday morning, prior to an evening clash with the sad-sack Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center. The visitors were on a three-game winning streak — beating the powerful Boston Bruins 4-3, high-scoring Calgary Flames 2-1 and feeble Los Angeles Kings 3-2 — built on the premise that a responsible, close-checking brand of hockey trumps an all-out offensive strike.
“It’s the time of year… you’re excited about what’s coming. At the end of the day, playing defence is hard. We’ve got some skill in our lineup and they didn’t get to the NHL grinding, but March means that you have to, so we’ve been able to up the intensity in that department,” said Maurice.
It’s a style that breeds confidence in tight nail-biters that go down to the wire. It’s a style befitting of teams that qualify for the NHL post-season.
And it’s a style the Jets have struggled to exhibit with much consistency, until recently.
“You don’t see teams going out there and scoring six or seven goals in order to win. It’s not the way you win in the playoffs. It just doesn’t happen,” said Connor, a tenacious fore-checker who’s on the right side of the puck more often than not. “It’s so true that if you can be responsible defensively in your own end, it frees up time and space down the ice and you’ll get your chances offensively.”
That’s the mantra of a savvy veteran, not a player still on an entry-level contract with less than two full seasons under his belt; and not a player whose massive earning potential is in direct proportion to the number of times he illuminates the goal lamp.
“Kyle is one of the handful of young guys we haven’t shown a whole lot of video to, we haven’t needed to. His reads are really good,” said Maurice. “That’s what the coach is always selling: You’ll score more if you defend harder, and I think he’s got the right handle on where we are.”
Connor put up points almost effortlessly throughout his junior, college and pro careers. He fired 65 goals in 112 games in his final two seasons of junior with the Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms of the USHL, netted 35 goals in 38 NCAA Division I contests with the University of Michigan Wolverines and then supplied the Manitoba Moose with 25 tallies in 52 games during his first-ever pro campaign (2016-17).
He didn’t let the Jets down in his inaugural NHL season (’17-18) with the big club, scoring 31 goals to outpace all rookies in that category. He finished the year with 57 points, fourth among rookies, and was fourth in Calder Trophy voting as the league’s top rookie.
This year, he spent a bulk of time on the Jets’ top line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler but for now is grouped with newcomer Kevin Hayes and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Connor orchestrated Hayes’ game-opening goal in L.A., using his speed down the wall and creativity behind the net to get the puck to the crease. Winnipeg didn’t generate a bushel of chances but kept the Kings in chains in the third period when it mattered most.
“We’re OK with just a few Grade-A scoring chances because we have that ability to cash in. Sometimes, that’s all it takes, especially when you’re limiting the other team to almost nothing,” said Connor. “I think we like our chances in that type of game with the skill we’ve got. It’s something we all really take pride in.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).