CHICAGO – Prior to puck drop against the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night, Winnipeg Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois made clear the tough task ahead of his crew in their pursuit for a playoff berth.
Doing the math in his head, understanding Winnipeg will need to get to around 95 points to squeeze into the postseason in a tough Western Conference, Dubois noted the Jets have to win 15 of their final game 20 regular-season games. A tough task for any NHL club, let alone a team like the Jets, who have struggled to find consistency all season.
That lofty goal got off to a good start, even if it didn’t always look easy, as the Jets narrowly defeated the lowly Blackhawks, 6-4, in front of 19,251 fans at the United Center.
“A lot of momentum swings,” Jets interim coach Dave Lowry said. “I liked the way we started. We let them back in the game. We grinded out a win, found a way to a hold on.”
The Jets find themselves in a precarious position as Monday’s NHL trade deadline inches nearer, with the cut-off at 2 p.m. CT. Winnipeg is four points back of the Vegas Golden Knights for the final wild-card spot, with the Dallas Stars and potentially the Vancouver Canucks, who were one point behind but still doing battle with the Buffalo Sabres by press time, ahead of them in the standings.
With the victory, the Jets improve to 29-24-10. The Blackhawks have now lost three straight and four of their last five to drop to 22-32-9.
“Our mindset through this stretch, this past month and even January is focus on that next game,” said Kyle Connor, who had a four-point night, including a goal and three assists. “We can’t control outside what is going on in the league everywhere else, but that’s what we’re focused on as a group. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of narrowing our focus and taking that approach.” The Jets led 1-0 after the first period, only to fall behind early in the second, before rallying with four unanswered goals to take a 5-2 edge into the third. But it was the Blackhawks who pushed the play for much of the final 20 minutes, earning a power-play goal from Taylor Raddysh, followed by an even-strength marker by Philipp Kurashev to make it a one-goal game with seven minutes remaining.
Suddenly, the Jets were on their heels and had it not been for some key saves from Connor Hellebuyck down the stretch, the evening could have ended up much differently. It wasn’t until Blake Wheeler deposited an empty-net goal with 1:09 left that Winnipeg was finally able to exhale.
It was a particularly troubling finish given the Blackhawks had played a heavy road game the day before, falling to the Minnesota Wild 3-1. Meanwhile, Winnipeg was on the road for the one tilt, and will return home to play a four-game home stand, beginning with Vegas Tuesday night.
“It’s the way they’ve been playing, and we fell victim to it, just rush after rush, trying to play an open game,” Connor said. “You can see that in the third, they’re really starting to open it up. One of those where it wasn’t our best effort, but we stuck with it, able to get the two points here.”
Nikolaj Ehlers opened the scoring 9:16 into the game with his 18th of the season and now has goals in each of the last four games. Ehlers gained speed through the neutral zone before dropping a pass to Connor, who dished the puck back to him in the Blackhawks corner, where Ehlers skated behind the net and beat Marc-Andre Fleury on the wraparound.
While the opening frame had a fair share of scoring chances for both sides, it looked sleepy compared to the early minutes of the second. Three goals were scored in the span of one minute and two seconds, all coming before the 2:15 mark, including a pair by the Blackhawks 23 seconds apart to take a 2-1 lead.
Chicago’s first goal ricocheted off the leg of Winnipeg native Jonathan Toews following a shot from Taylor Raddysh from a bad angle. Then some poor defensive play by Winnipeg led to a give-and-go between Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane in close, with Strome making good on an easy tap-in.
The crowd was barely finished cheering when Jansen Harkins scored the first of two goals to even the game 2-2. Harkins tipped home a Dylan DeMelo shot on the first marker, and then converted a slick pass courtesy of Andrew Copp from the corner for his second 10 minutes later.
“We were just kind of gelling and you kind of saw that as the game went on,” Harkins said. “I was just trying to get to the net and then use my shot and it paid off.”
Harkins was promoted from the fourth line to the third, which also included Evgeny Svechnikov, after news broke in the morning that Adam Lowry contracted COVID-19 and had to enter the league’s protocols. It was Harkins’ first two-goal night of his career – a span of 117 regular-season games.
“If there’s one thing we’ve kind of gained from the last couple of years, it’s being ready for weird circumstances and playing on the fly,” Harkins said. “Tonight was a good night for me and obviously it feels good.”
As for Adam Lowry, he has already returned home, flying back to Winnipeg prior to the game. It’s a bit of a curious case as people who test positive are federally mandated to wait 10 days before crossing the U.S.-Canada border. But as restrictions continue to loosen, the Free Press was told Lowry managed to clear customs and will be available to play if he’s symptom-free after five days.
The Jets didn’t stop after Harkins’ second goal, scoring twice more in the period to take a commanding three-goal lead through 40 minutes.
Connor scored on the power play, adding to his team-lead, now at 39 on the season and his sixth in seven games. It looked a tad controversial at first, as the one-timer came with Fleury’s glove absent his hand following a brush up with Blake Wheeler near the crease. But the officials reviewed the goal and deemed Wheeler didn’t intentionally try to remove the glove or interfere with Fleury in any way.
Josh Morrissey made it 5-2 with 23 seconds remaining in the second period, blasting home a one-timer in the slot following a pass from Scheifele.
That set up a tense third period, but one the Jets ultimately pulled off. It won’t matter how Winnipeg gets the job done down the stretch, so long as they find a way to collect valuable points in the standings.
“We’re not going to beat up any wins, I’ll guarantee you that,” Dave Lowry said. “We know every night now is critical for us and the value of the points, we know that Dallas won their game so we just have to continue to take care of what we can control.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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