WEATHER ALERT

Perfetti’s three-point night paces Jets past Penguins 4-1

Rookie bounces back from flu to notch trio of assists

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PITTSBURGH — A sick performance by Cole Perfetti — and we mean that in the nicest possible way — helped lead the Winnipeg Jets to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.

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PITTSBURGH — A sick performance by Cole Perfetti — and we mean that in the nicest possible way — helped lead the Winnipeg Jets to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After spending much of Thursday’s game in Buffalo perched over a toilet, ultimately unable to finish because of a flu bug that has been running through the locker room in recent days, the 21-year-old rookie found enough energy to suit up 24 hours later.

It was a gutsy performance. Perfetti tied a career-high with three assists, setting up linemates Mark Scheifele (twice) and Blake Wheeler (once) for goals.

Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele returns to the bench in the second period after scoring his first of two goals in the Jets 4-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Friday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“Kind of got fever, chills and then lots of trips to the bathroom, puking,” Perfetti said of how his night against the Sabres went. “Yeah, it was a tough game. I didn’t feel good. It was probably the worst I’ve felt since I can remember.”

Winnipeg was feeling pretty good after this one, following up the 4-2 win over Buffalo with an outstanding effort and ending a three-game road trip on a positive note. Nikolaj Ehlers had the other tally, while backup goalie David Rittich stopped 22 of 23 shots.

“Give the players full marks for playing the way we did. That was probably one of the best games we played all year, it really was, in terms of how we wanted to play and how to be successful going forward,” said Jets coach Rick Bowness. “There were no passengers tonight. Everyone contributed.”

The Jets are now 28-14-1 and tied for first-place in the Central Division with Dallas. Pittsburgh falls to 21-14-6.

1) Seriously, how good was Perfetti: Consider this: He was so iffy to even play, the Jets sent defenceman Ville Heinola to the Manitoba Moose in the morning, simply so they could create a roster spot to call up Jansen Harkins as an emergency insurance policy. If Perfetti was still in sick bay, Winnipeg wouldn’t have had 12 healthy forwards, since Morgan Barron is also down and out with the same bug.

“Barron caught it, and I was sitting at dinner with him the night before. So I kind of figured it might come at some point. And then I ended up getting hit with it around 4:30 before the game (Thursday),” said Perfetti. “The way I was feeling after the game there was no way I was going to play.”

But almost as quickly as it arrived, it also began to exit.

“Kind of just woke up and felt pretty good, felt decent. Stomach was feeling a lot better, but I didn’t have much energy, I was super lethargic,” said Perfetti.

“And then I kinda started doing my routine, I was pretending as if I was going to play. Didn’t eat much and started going through it. Started to get some energy, and then around 3:30, 4 – right around the 24-hour mark – is when I started to feel like a human again.”

Perfetti is now third in NHL rookie scoring (six goals, 19 assists in 25 games), trailing only Seattle’s Matty Beniers and Anaheim’s Mason McTavish.

2) Move over, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers: There’s a friendly competition brewing between Winnipeg’s top two lines, and that’s a very good thing for the Jets. Dubois, Connor and Ehlers have been very good in their five games together since Ehlers returned from injury. For example, Ehlers goal on Friday gives him eight points (three goals, five assists) in the last four games alone, while Connor is on a sizzling nine-game point streak, with six goals and nine assists in that span. They are a force.

But after a couple quiet games earlier in the week, Scheifele, Wheeler and Perfetti seem to be waking up.

“We’re creating lots, we’re playing some good defence that’s leading to our offence. I think we’re really happy with our play right now,” said Perfetti.

Winnipeg Jets right wing Blake Wheeler is congratulated by teammates after scoring against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period in Pittsburgh, Friday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Wheeler opened the scoring at 11:19 of the first period, batting home a loose puck during a wild goal-mouth scramble on the power play. It was his 10th of the year.

Pittsburgh’s Drew O’Connor tied it later in the frame, tipping a shot past Rittich, but the Jets were still very much controlling play. They were finally rewarded at 17:58 of the second when Perfetti and Wheeler set up Scheifele for his team-leading 25th of the year.

“When you have a cough or a head cold, you can kind of battle through it a little more. When your stomach’s in knots and you feel like you’re going to puke, it’s almost impossible to play,” Scheifele said of Perfetti.

“For a young kid like him to battle through it, and feel better and come into an NHL game on a back to back and get three assists, you know, that’s pretty impressive and I think he just got rewarded for doing the right things and battling.”

Ehlers goal came exactly 22 seconds later, giving the Jets some additional breathing room. They could really let out a sigh of relief when Scheifele struck again at 6:39 of the third, as Perfetti and Dylan DeMelo (his second assist of the night and 100th career point) set him up.

3) The Jets could have had a couple more, too:

Winnipeg actually beat Dustin Tokarski six times in the game. But two didn’t count.

Scheifele tipped a Neal Pionk shot into the net shortly after Wheeler had scored, but the score remained 1-0 when Pittsburgh successfully challenged that Scheifele was a hair offside on the zone entry. After the Penguins tied it, Dubois deflected another Pionk shot past Tokarski, seemingly giving Winnipeg a 2-1 lead. But officials immediately waved it off, declaring incidental goalie interference on Dubois.

To make matters worse, the Jets challenged the call, and were rejected. They felt Dubois had been pushed into the netminder. That left them shorthanded with a delay of game penalty, which they successfully killed.

“That sometimes can derail a team. You get two goals, you feel like you’re getting some momentum. If the other team comes back and takes control of the game, it can derail you for the rest of the game, especially on a back to back,” said Scheifele.

4) Don’t discount the value of “Big Save Dave.”

Rittich is now 7-4-0 on the year, which is everything you could ask for fom a backup netminder. He doesn’t need to play a lot with Connor Hellebuyck holding down the fort. But he continues to give his team a chance.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Bryan Rust, right, and Winnipeg Jets’ Brenden Dillon collide during the second period in Pittsburgh, Friday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

His biggest save of the night came early in the third, with the score still 3-1, when he robbed Rickard Rakell from in close.

“Go back to the players, they did a fantastic job in front of him. They didn’t hardly get any chances tonight. So the players did a great job. When we needed a save, we got it. So good on him. It looked good on him,” said Bowness.

5) Back-to-backs are no biggie:

This concluded the seventh set of back-to-back games this year. Winnipeg is now 5-2-0 in the first game, and 4-3-0 in the second. They have six more back-to-backs before the season is done.

6) Road warriors:

By winning for a second straight night in enemy territory, the Jets are now 12-8-1 away from Canada Life Centre. This one came against a rested Penguins team that only had four regulation losses in 19 home games.

Winnipeg will want to keep the good vibes flowing on the road, considering they make a quick pit-stop back home on Sunday night against Arizona, then head out for five straight in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Philadelphia and Nashville.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

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.

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