Jets stay alert longer, post ‘W’
Winnipeg wins snoozer, outlasts Coyotes
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Number 1 in the Central. Number 1 in the West. And, no doubt, number 1 in the hearts of many fans who are loving what they’re seeing these days.
The Winnipeg Jets are looking down on everyone else following a 2-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night at Canada Life Centre. A third straight win, and eighth in the last nine games has them flying high.
“I think any time that you get this far into the season and you can be at the top of the division or the conference, it’s meaningful,” said coach Rick Bowness.
“You know what we’ve been through with the travel and the injuries and the sickness and everything and for us to be sitting there — and listen, there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us and there’s a long road to go, we know that — but it’s a credit to their resilience that we’re sitting here where we are today.”
Winnipeg is 29-14-1, which is two points ahead of Dallas in the Central, and one point ahead of Pacific Division-leading Vegas. All three clubs have 38 regular-season games remaining.
Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler had the goals, while Connor Hellebuyck stopped 20 of 21 shots. Clayton Keller was the only one to beat him.
Let’s break down how we got here:
1) This had the makings of a so-called “trap” game, with sad-sack Arizona limping into town gone 0-for-2023 so far, with seven straight regulation losses since New Year’s Eve. They’d lost eight straight overall, and were winless in a dozen consecutive road games away from the tiny college barn they currently call home in the desert.
They were also playing for a second straight night, falling 2-1 in Minnesota on Saturday. That said, they put up a spirited fight in this one.
“Give them a lot of credit for it. I watched the game against Minnesota and it was the same type of thing. They frustrated Minnesota. They’re fast and they’re on top of you and they don’t give you a lot of room,” said Bowness.
They may be short on talent right now, as they are among the favourites in the race to the NHL basement and top shot at Connor Bedard, but they proved to be a tough out. A big part of that was the play of goaltender Karel Vejmalka, who always seems to raise his game when facing the Jets.
Despite a dominating first period by Winnipeg in which they outshot Arizona 12-4, it was still 0-0 when the puck dropped in the middle frame. But a perfect deflection by Dubois off a Josh Morrissey shot gave the Jets a 1-0 lead. It was the power forward’s 20th of the year.
Arizona stuck around, however, taking advantage of some broken coverage as Keller tied it at 11:02. It was the first shot by the visitors in more than 15 minutes of game time dating back to the opening period.
But Wheeler restored the lead, this time for good, when he finished off a pretty three-way passing play with linemates Mark Scheifele and Cole Perfetti at 16:45 for his 11th of the year.
“That goaltender has given us a tough time. I don’t remember those guys coming in here and us just blowing the doors off them,” said Wheeler. “I think we were expecting that. I don’t think we came here expecting to blow them out. We kind of knew the style of game it was going to be. We just stuck with it and got the two points, that’s really all that matters.”
2) Scheifele’s assist on Wheeler’s game-winner was the 616th point of his career, all with the Jets. That’s one more than Atlanta Thrashers superstar Ilya Kovalchuk had with the organization, leaving Scheifele alone in second-place in franchise history.
The only guy he’s now chasing is the one who scored the goal.
“I was just tired and wanted to get off the ice. I was hoping one of them would score,” Wheeler said with a laugh of how the goal occurred after what might have seemed at the time to be some over-passing. “Those guys made a couple great plays and it was up to me to shovel it in.”
Their line had a big night against Pittsburgh (Scheifele scored twice, Perfetti had three assists and Wheeler had a goal and a helper) as they seem to be heating up, joining the other top trio of Dubois, Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor to give the Jets a potent one-two punch.
“We were flying before (Wheeler and Perfetti) both got hurt.”
Obviously the two of us come back at the same time, it just takes a little bit of time, even if your legs and lungs are where you want them to be,” said Wheeler. “I thought on the last road trip, I really liked the way we were playing. We coulda had big nights in both Buffalo and Detroit. So it was good to get a reward in Pittsburgh and carry it over to here.”
3) With the Jets close to being back to full health — forwards David Gustafsson and Mason Appleton and defenceman Logan Stanley are the only ones currently sidelined — some tough lineup decisions must be made.
Take, for example, veteran Sam Gagner being a healthy scratch Sunday. Despite having eight goals in 40 games, which is tied with Morrissey for fifth-best on the team, he watched this one from the press box as Morgan Barron returned from a two-game illness.
“It’s hard to take him out, there’s no question, but we wanted to put as much speed in that lineup as we could because we kind of figured what we were up against,” said Bowness.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to keep putting pucks in and use your speed and legs to go get it and then make them work so that’s a tough call but we have the depth and we’ve had a lot of games and we’ve had a lot of travel and we’re going to use the depth.”
The Jets were missing as many as seven players less than two weeks ago, including key ones such as Wheeler, Perfetti, Nikolaj Ehlers (an assist Sunday gives him three goals and six assists in six games since his return) and defenceman Nate Schmidt.
“It’s something we talk about a little bit. But we have a lot of hockey left to be played,” Wheeler said of their current spot in the standings. “I think what we’re more looking at it like is we’ve played a handful of games here with our lineup sort of close to back to normal, or close to what we expect it to be. I think we’re looking at where we can go and how we can build and keep getting better.”
4) Barron said it was good to be back after the flu had him down and out. It’s been making its way through the team, with Perfetti and Kevin Stenlund hit hard last week as well.
“I took the pre-game skate in Buffalo and started feeling a little crappy and then very quickly after that, it came fast and furious,” said Barron. “That whole first day was tough and then the second day, I had no energy and I still couldn’t really keep any food down. To get the off day was a little bit better, but I stayed in Buffalo the extra night and then took a car service (to Pittsburgh) because I wasn’t getting on the plane. I’ve never been hit like that before, especially that quickly. It kind of came out of nowhere, but I bounced back quickly. It seems like it’s a 24, 48-hour bug.”
UP NEXT: The Jets begin a five-game road trip on Tuesday night in Montreal.
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.