We wondered what a full 60-minute effort from the Winnipeg Jets might look like, rather than the fits and starts they’d shown so far.
The answer, it turns out, is pretty damn good. And the rest of the all-Canadian Division should probably take notice.
Goals from Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry and Blake Wheeler and 28 saves by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck led the Jets to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators Thursday night at Canadian Tire Centre.
Winnipeg improves to 3-1-0 on the young season. Ottawa falls to 1-2-1.
Unlike the first three games of the year, there was no slow start out of the gate, no prolonged periods of sloppy play, no big comeback required. Just an aggressive, focused Jets team that skated with a sense of purpose, imposed their will on a less-talented opponent, hemmed the home team in its own zone, won the bulk of the battles and repeatedly capitalized on the offence they created, while also keeping things relatively neat and tidy in their own end.
In other words, the closest they’ve come to their “A” game, by a significant stretch. It’s even more noteworthy considering they were once again without sniper Patrik Laine (upper-body injury) and shutdown defencemen Dylan DeMelo (personal) and Tucker Poolman (COVID-protocol).
“We moved as five guys very well, lots of close puck support, lots of quickness. It was a well-managed game, a really well-played game by our team,” coach Paul Maurice said of his group, which boarded a charter and flew home immediately after their second straight win to close out the three-game eastern swing.
Sure, we’d seen brief glimpses of this style of play during the season-opener last week against Calgary, when Winnipeg was the better club for the last two periods, erasing an early 3-1 deficit to win 4-3 in overtime. The Jets also played a solid third period on Monday in Toronto during a 3-1 loss, and a strong final 20 minutes in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime victory in Ottawa that also included a pair of two-goal rallies.
But Maurice, along with several players, talked plenty about needing more, especially when it comes to the tentative way they seemingly tip-toe into games. There was none of that Thursday, after an optional practice the previous day in the nation’s capital which seemingly led to some fresh legs, including 19-year-old Ville Heinola making his 2021 season debut on the top blue-line pairing with Josh Morrissey.
The difference with Heinola and Morrissey, rather than Sami Niku and Morrissey, was stark. Night and day, really. Clean, easy exits out of the zone, crisp passes to forwards who had come back to help, and no sense of panic whatsoever. Heinola has certainly earned himself a longer look in the lineup, and I’d keep him exactly in that spot for at least another game.
It also helped that the Jets tried something new by striking first, as Ehlers skated himself into the slot and ripped a low shot through the five-hole of Matt Murray 11:50 into the opening frame. That marked the first time this season Winnipeg has had a lead at any point in a game.
I wondered if they might just try to sit on the lead, but the opposite was true. The Jets found an even better gear in the second period – some might say killer instinct – when Scheifele (4:22), Lowry (7:05) and Wheeler (13:55) basically put this one to bed early. The captain’s goal was highlight-reel, with Scheifele and Connor playing a game of Tic-Tac-Toe.
Maurice put the trio back together midway through Tuesday’s game, which brought an instant spark to his squad. Like a old sweater or comfy pair of shoes, there’s just something about that familiar trio that is a great fit. Maurice had moved Ehlers up to the top line to start the year, while Connor skated on the second line with Laine and Paul Stastny. But with Laine currently out of the mix, he got the blender out, with Ehlers now down with Stastny and Andrew Copp.
Stastny, who had done little in the first three games, was much more noticeable, and only some bad luck and great saves by Murray prevented him from a multiple-goal night.
The one blemish was Hellebuyck’s bid for the 21st shutout of his career ruined by a fluky deflection off Chris Tierney with just under three minutes to play. He was steaming mad about that one, too, when I asked him about it on the Zoom call.
And yes, we could get picky by noting the power play went 0-for-7, making them 1-for-16 on the road trip and 2-for-20 on the year. But Laine has missed the past three games, actual practice time has been in short supply and the personnel is still trying to figure it out, so we’ll cut them a bit of slack in that department.
If you want to look on the bright side, Winnipeg has won three of four in spite of very little special teams contributions (they did kill off three minors of their own Thursday), which should improve over time considering the talent they have up front.
The Jets also lost veteran centre Nate Thompson in the first period to a lower-body injury. That could open the door for one of David Gustafsson and Kristian Vesalainen to step into his place, should he miss any time. Both young forwards, with a handful of NHL games on their resumes, are hungry for the chance.
Towards the end of the game, some bad blood started boiling, with Brady Tkachuk in the middle of it. Nathan Beaulieu took a few swings in his direction, and the six-foot-seven Stanley endeared himself to Jets fans when he grabbed a pair of Senators by the sweaters, channelling his best Dustin Byfuglien impression.
Expect more of that to come, especially with the all-divisional format to this year’s schedule.
Winnipeg will try for the three-game sweep when they host Ottawa Saturday night at Bell MTS Place. It’s the start of seven straight at the downtown barn, and a golden chance to turn a good start to the season into a great one.
They’ll certainly help their cause if they can put together more complete games like they did Thursday.
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