Jets tame Panthers 7-2, take top spot in Central division

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The top line is cooking with gas these days. And captain Blake Wheeler seems to be savouring his role as master chef in charge of feeding his hungry linemates.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/02/2018 (1746 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The top line is cooking with gas these days. And captain Blake Wheeler seems to be savouring his role as master chef in charge of feeding his hungry linemates.

Wheeler dished out three primary assists Sunday night that were anything but routine as the Winnipeg Jets routed the Florida Panthers 7-2 at Bell MTS Place.

Rookie Kyle Connor was the beneficiary of a pair of perfect passes, while Mark Scheifele gobbled up the game-winner late in the second period to break open what had been a fairly even tilt. Winnipeg is now 6-2-1 on their season-long 10-game homestand, which wraps up Tuesday night against Los Angeles. The Jets also jump into solo spot on top of the Central division, two points up on the Nashville Predators with a 35-15-9 record.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS A shot by Winnipeg Jets left wing Nikolaj Ehlers (not shown) gets past Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer (34) with Jets right wing Patrik Laine (29) and Panthers defenceman MacKenzie Weegar (52) in front of the net during second period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.

“Everybody else wants to play with him. He’s dynamic, with that speed,” coach Paul Maurice said of Wheeler. “Because of that speed, that size, that strength he just draws people and they have to cover him off and it just makes for so much more open ice out there. He does a marvellous job of finding that hole. It’s unusual in that his passing quality almost gets higher the faster he is going. He makes that play at high-end speed and he’s very dangerous.”

Sunday’s game provided a tasty treat for the hometown fans, with plenty of scoring chances being traded early by two young teams loaded with offensive talent. In the end, the Jets turned a close contest into another laugher.

Perhaps setting the stage for an entertaining tilt, it was a pair of defenceman who made highlight-reel saves in the opening minutes. First, Jets blue liner Tyler Myers stopped what looked to be a sure goal when he got his stick in the way of a Vincent Trocheck wraparound just before it crossed the line.

“His clock was set right tonight. He was ready to go, right from the beginning. That’s the kind of stuff they’ve been doing all year. That’s glorified, and that’s awesome. I think I owe him something after that one. Maybe a fancy dinner or something,” said goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

Then it was Alex Petrovic’s turn to save the day, as the Panthers defenceman swept away a sure Matt Hendricks tally right off the line. Nic Petan then fired the loose puck directly into the back of goalie James Reimer’s leg to keep it scoreless.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) stops a shot by Florida Panthers centre Vincent Trocheck (21) during first period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.

Florida opened the scoring near the midway point of the first, as Denis Malgin fired a wrister past Hellebuyck with Myers in the box for tripping. The goal snapped a streak of 16 straight penalty kills by the Jets.

Winnipeg quickly struck on their own power play a few minutes later, as Wheeler made a cross-seam pass to Connor who buried it for his 20th of the season.

“It’s been great. Learning from him on the ice, off the ice. He’s the captain of our team, our leader and one of our best players. So every day I try to learn as much as I can front that guy,” said Connor.

The Jets jumped ahead early in the second off a rather fortuitous goal. Nikolaj Ehlers took a shot which hit a Florida defenceman’s stick, off Reimer’s glove, off Reimer’s head, off Reimer’s back and into the back of the net for his 23rd of the year. Just like he drew it up, no doubt.

Florida tied it, once again on the power play, this time with Jack Roslovic in the box. Evgenii Dadonov swatted a puck out of mid-air which hit teammate Aleksander Barkov before going past Hellebuyck.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Florida Panthers centre Micheal Haley (18) and defenceman Mike Matheson (19) go after Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele (55) who had tried to dig a puck away from goaltender James Reimer (34) during second period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.

Winnipeg managed to kill off a Mathieu Perreault minor later in the period, and then Hellebuyck made perhaps his save of the year with a larcenous glove stop off Derek MacKenzie that brought the home crowd to their feet.

“I had that whole side checked off. I didn’t think there was anyone over there. I was playing a little aggressive on the right side, hoping the guy was going to shoot. And then he passed it. Sometimes you have to have a little bit of luck on your side,” said Hellebuyck, who laughed at a follow-up question about whether it was mostly luck rather than skill.

“Nah, I’m not going to say that, I’m going to take credit for it. A little bit desperation. I don’t like desperation, I’ve always said that. I think I got caught a little bit off guard, and that’s kind of my fault. But I think I made up for it kind of in a big way,” said Hellebuyck.

That close call might have been the turning point of the game for the Jets, who regained the lead with just over a minute left in the middle frame. Once again it was Wheeler with a beautiful pass, this time to Scheifele who blasted his 18th of the year.

“You expect your goaltender to make certain saves, that’s not one of ’em. You get those types of saves and it’s as good as a goal,” Wheeler said following the game. “You just have no idea what that does for your team when you give up a pretty egregious chance there and he makes a save like that. It puts a lot of fire on the bench, a lot of wind in your sails, gives you a lot of momentum.”

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little (18) scores on Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer (34) during third period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.

Scheifele now has three goals and five assists in five games since returning from injury. Seven of those points (three goals, four assists) have come in the past three games.

“It’s just one of those things, put us on the ice together it’s going to work. Not every time, not 82 games out of the year, not every shift, but more often than not we’re going to make something happen,” Wheeler said of the chemistry between him and Scheifele.

Wheeler set up Connor again early in the third period, giving him 51 assists on the year which is second-best in the NHL. That’s just one off his career high, set two seasons ago in a full 82 games. With 23 games left in this season, he appears poised to smash it. Wheeler also has points in five straight games (two goals, seven assists), including two goals, four assists in his past two games.

Bryan Little got in on the action a few minutes later, with Myers making a great pass to find him all alone in front of the net. Perreault made it 6-2 when he took a pass from Roslovic and scored. And Patrik Laine finished things off with his team-leading 27th of the game with just over a minute to play.

It marked the second straight game the Jets put up at least a half-dozen, coming off Friday night’s 6-1 win over Colorado.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice yells after a goalie interference call on defenceman Dustin Byfuglien (not shown) during third period NHL hockey action against the Florida Panthers in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele (55) celebrates after scoring as Florida Panthers centre Derek MacKenzie (17) and centre Colton Sceviour (7) look on during second period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.
TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little (18), centre Mathieu Perreault (85), defenceman Tyler Myers (57), centre Jack Roslovic (52) and defenceman Josh Morrissey (44) celebrate after Little scored on Florida Panthers goaltender James Reimer (34) during third period NHL hockey action in Winnipeg, Sunday, February 18, 2018.
Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

History

Updated on Sunday, February 18, 2018 11:09 PM CST: Writethru and additional photos

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