The Jets are going full-tilt in their chase for a Wild Card spot, and tonight’s opponents in Arizona provided a great opportunity to nip the bud on one of Winnipeg’s pursuers. Arizona has been in tougher straits recently, but this team has enough firepower to give the Jets fits. Their last game in October saw the Jets lose by a rather depressing scoreline, so victory on home ice was far from assured. By the first period alone, you might have been worried that things were going to slip away once again...
The game started off at a fairly brisk pace. The Jets were immediately pressured by Arizona’s pace and forecheck. Clearing the defensive zone is always a challenge for Winnipeg, and the Yotes did a good job of disrupting Winnipeg’s many attempts to exit. Connor Hellebuyck had a few early tests to deal with, but nothing he wasn’t prepared to handle. The Jets then started to wake up after the first 5 or so minutes, getting their skating legs going and offensive chances on net. Hockey, though, is cruel, and a bad defensive sequence involving Pionk and Roslovic saw Nick Schmaltz walk in unchallenged for an easy goal. Pionk was more at fault there, but that whole sequence really should have seen a Jet challenge the puck-carrier.
Winnipeg still continued to aggressively press and put some serious heat on Darcy Kuemper. Arizona’s masked man answered every challenge, keeping the Jets at arm’s length while the Yotes blueline unit took a nap. Not long before the end of the period, another chaotic Jets defensive zone sequence gave Schmaltz his second goal. For a first period that was pretty solid from Winnipeg’s perspective, the 2 ugly conceded goals were notable scars.
The Jets didn’t seem too upset about things in the second period, and kept playing like the win was within reach (which, well, it was). After several robberies from Kuemper and some failed finishes on odd-man rushes, Nikolaj Ehlers earned a breakaway off of a great pass from Poolman. Ehlers beat OEL to the net and tucked the puck past Kuemper for a well-deserved goal. The Yotes, though, kept threatening the joy with several dangerous counters. One saw Grabner alone against Hellebuyck, right before he shanked the puck wide.
Thankfully, good things happen when Cody Eakin shoots the puck. Wait, what? Yes, the much-maligned consummate 2C fired a shot after leading a good offensive rush that led to a juicy rebound for Poolman to deposit. Tying the game right before the end of the second period was crucial, and got the Jets back to the dinner table. Winnipeg honestly deserved the goal, because the top-6 had been buzzing constantly and the fourth line was bringing some genuine heat. The third period was yet another 20 minutes of tight, contested hockey, and Eakin played hero once again. After winning a faceoff, Laine and Ehlers forced the puck forward far enough to reach Cody. The Winnipeg native outlasted a sprawling Kuemper and fired the puck into the empty net, giving the Jets a lead they would not relinquish.
Things definitely got hairy within the last few minutes of regulation. Arizona pulled the goalie a bit earlier, and the Jets were in firewagon defense mode. Bodies collapsed all around Hellebuyck’s crease, and the Yotes came extremely close to clawing a goal back amidst the chaos. Our Vezina favorite held strong, though, and kept the Jets in it long enough for Scheifele to grab an empty-net insurance goal. The win gets Winnipeg back into WC1 for the time being, setting up a marathon sprint to the playoff line.
Connor Hellebuyck went full beast mode.
The Jets were offensively great, and a defensive wreck. Hellebuyck covered up the latter, recovering after 2 early goals put a shadow of doubt on the game. Winnipeg’s undisputed starting netminder continues to make his case for the Vezina trophy, and tonight was no exception. Hellebuyck is killing it out there, and one has to wonder just how far he can carry the team in the post-season.
Laine and Ehlers are really freakin’ good.
I’ve raved about Nik and Patrik over the past several months, but man are they good. They’re playing at a level that might make Matt Hendricks look like a 2C between them. While Eakin is definitely a step behind his linemates, Laine and Ehlers were still able to make use of his skillset throughout the game. The Scandinavian (EDIT: and Nordic) wingers only seem to be getting better with age, and who knows just how much magic they have left in store for us.
The importance of this win can’t be overstated.
Winnipeg fell behind early and gritted out a crucial win to stay in the playoff race. I was wondering if the Jets were going to be discouraged by the rough start, but they found another gear to haul themselves back into things. The playoff picture is still a mess, but the upcoming schedule against Vancouver, Nashville, and Calgary will provide a lot more clarity soon enough. Go Jets Go!