On a hot streak
Connor fills hat as Jets win fifth straight
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The Winnipeg Jets are going streaking. A 7-4 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday afternoon in front of 14,206 fans at Canada Life Centre was a season-high fifth straight for the hockey club.
Kyle Connor’s fourth career hat trick led the way, while linemates Pierre-Luc Dubois (career-high four assists) and Nikolaj Ehlers (one goal, two helpers) also had productive days at the office. There were also key contributions from less star-studded sources, including a game-winning goal from Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and tallies from Morgan Barron and Dylan DeMelo.
Backup goalie David Rittich shook off a shaky start and stopped 34 of 38 shots as he gave Connor Hellebuyck a well-deserved breather.
Winnipeg improves to 26-13-1. That includes a perfect 3-0-0 record against Vancouver, which falls to 17-19-3.
Let’s delve into the meat and potatoes of this latest triumph:
1) This was probably tougher than it should have been. Connor gave the Jets a quick 2-0 lead before the game was eight minutes old, and it looked like the rout might be on. But then the home team took the foot off the gas, and it was 2-2 before intermission thanks to goals from J.T. Miller and Jack Studnicka.
“You saw two different teams out there. You saw the team that we wanted to be in the first 11 minutes of the first period and that’s how we want to play. They only had a couple of shots on net,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said following the game.
“That’s how we want to play — and then we stopped playing that way for nine minutes and all of a sudden, they’re back in the game. Which you can’t do because one thing Vancouver can do is score. They’ve got a lot of skill up front and they showed that. But we let them do that.”
Ehlers and Barron restored Winnipeg’s two-goal cushion early in the second period, but once again Vancouver roared back to life with Bo Horvat and Sheldon Dries (on the power play) tying it up before the midway mark of the middle frame.
The Jets cleaned up their act at that point — giveaways were 11-1 in favour of Winnipeg — and seized control. Jonsson-Fjallby took a nice feed from linemate Sam Gagner and ripped a wicked wrister past Spencer Martin, who had come in to replace starter Collin Delia after the Jets’ fourth goal. The snipe, at 18:17 of the second, proved to be the game-winner.
DeMelo, on a shorthanded rush after a nifty drop past from Jonsson-Fjallby, made it 6-4 early in the third. And then Connor made sure his club wouldn’t blow a third two-goal advantage, completing his hat trick later in the period.
“When you get into the playoffs, you can’t play like the way we did today,” said Bowness. “We’ve got to get into the playoffs and we’ve got to learn before we get there that if you get a 2-0 lead, you keep playing the right way. You keep playing the same way and we didn’t. We started making poor percentage plays and when you start doing that against a highly skilled team like Vancouver, they’re going to make you pay and they’re going to make you look bad, which they did at times. To me, that’s self inflicted.”
2) Winnipeg’s new top line is going to be a big problem for opponents:
Dubois, Connor and Ehlers combined for 10 points and pretty much controlled play every time they stepped on the ice. What makes this even more notable is it comes in just their second game together, and with Ehlers still trying to find his footing after missing 36 games with a sports hernia.
“We played well. There’s still a lot of things we can improve on,” said Ehlers. “But we used our speed to find each other, to get on their D and get some loose pucks. And that worked out for us. It’s something that we’re going to continue doing.”
Connor is now up to 20 goals on the year, and a run at matching or even topping last year’s total of 47 isn’t out of the question.
“I thought we were reading off each other really well. Obviously a lot of potential, with that line,” said Connor.
“We also think the same way in a lot of senses, coming into the offensive zone. That’s what gives us the ability to read off of each other. A lot of cross-and-drops, finding the weak side. It’s just a lot of fun right now and hopefully we just continue to grow. This is Nik’s second game back and he’s only going to get better, out chemistry is only getting better, and hopefully the sky’s the limit.”
3) Winnipeg’s second line still has plenty of room for improvement.
The trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Cole Perfetti didn’t generate a whole lot, combining for just two shots on goal. In fact, they were the only line to not find the back of the net. You can attribute that to the fact Wheeler and Perfetti are still looking for another gear or two after they joined Ehlers (and Nate Schmidt) in returning to the lineup last Friday after extended absences due to injury.
“We’ve got to give them a couple of games to find their game,” said Bowness.
4) Winnipeg’s depth continues to shine:
Barron’s goal, his fifth, came after another solid shift from the third line which also includes Adam Lowry and Karson Kuhlman.
“Adam’s line has been good all year. It’s nice to see them score,” said Bowness, who also praised the work of the fourth line with Kevin Stenlund, Sam Gagner and Jonsson-Fjallby.
Jonsson-Fjallby’s goal, his third of the season, was an absolute rocket. Following the game, a scribe joked that he didn’t know the smooth-skating Swede had that in his toolbox.
“Yeah, me neither. Actually I changed (my) tape job for today, changed to white tape. I used (teammate Nate Schmidt’s) brand there, “Short Side” so I guess that was it,” he said.
Jonsson-Fjallby, picked up on waivers from Washington at the end of training camp, then made a great set-up for DeMelo’s second of the year. It came on an odd-man rush, with DeMelo the trailer.
“Actually the whole bench is yelling “three,” like the third guy with us. So that’s an assist on them,” Jonsson-Fjallby said of the drop pass.
The Jets also got five more points from the blue-line, thanks to Brenden Dillon (two assists), DeMelo (goal) and Neal Pionk and Dylan Samberg, who each had an assist. Surprisingly, Josh Morrissey was held off the scoresheet for the first time in 11 home games.
5) Rittich bounces back:
Hellebuyck had started 30 of the first 39 games, with his backup taking a seat on the bench since Dec. 23. With a busy schedule coming up, Bowness didn’t want Rittich to develop any further rust. But it looked like that decision might backfire when he seemed to be fighting the puck early on. However, he really hunkered down in the second half of the game, shutting the door the rest of the way.
Rittich likely won’t have to wait very long for his next start. He’ll get one of the back-to-backs coming up later this week in Buffalo (Thursday) or Pittsburgh (Friday).
UP NEXT: The Jets begin a three-game road trip, and officially hit the midway mark of the season, with Game #41 on Tuesday night in Detroit. It’s the start of a stretch in which Winnipeg will play eight of nine games in enemy territory.
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.
Updated on Monday, January 9, 2023 7:49 AM CST: Adds web headline
Updated on Monday, January 9, 2023 9:31 AM CST: Minor copy editing changes