Jets douse Flames 3-2
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The Winnipeg Jets have started 2023 just like they ended 2022 — playing their tails off, showing the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and, in a related development, winning hockey games.
A 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday at Canada Life Centre is one of the gutsiest of the season, considering they’re still without seven regular skaters due to injury and were facing a red-hot opponent that came to town with just two regulation losses in the past 10.
Sam Gagner is just the latest in a long line of players to step up and make a contribution. His perfect tip of a Ville Heinola point shot with under six minutes left in regulation snapped a tie and stood as the game-winner.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Gagner said of his seventh goal of the year. “That’s a team that’s chasing us in the standings. We want to stay ahead of them so we have to keep climbing. So an important win for us.”
Winnipeg has now won three straight games to improve to 24-13-1. They are solidly in second place in the Central Division, and third overall in the Western Conference (based on win percentage) as they approach the midway mark of the season.
This one had many of the ingredients of so many triumphs this year. Let’s delve further into the tasty recipe:
1) Offence from the defence: Another five points from the back end, including goals from Brenden Dillon (his first of the year) and Josh Morrissey (his seventh), plus assists from Heinola, Samberg and Dylan DeMelo. This is all related to the style Bowness has preached from day one, in which the Jets play as five-man units and get valuable contributions from the point.
“Well, we talk about it a lot. Being good at both nets. Trying to keep guys away from our net and tying up sticks. And then getting in their cage,” said Gagner. “I thought we did a pretty good job of getting low to high when we were able to establish some pressure. You gotta get to the net and find ways to create chances.”
All three goals came via that route. Dillon charged hard to the net and tipped a DeMelo shot at 14:50 of the second period to open the scoring.
“Pants, yeah. Big butt,” Dillon said when asked what the puck hit. “Scheif was covering high, I dropped it off to him and knew that he was covering for me so I felt free to go to the net and, again, just a great shot by ‘Mel. Pucks and bodies going there and I was happy to have it go in.”
Aftter Nikita Zadorov tied it late in the second, Morrissey had a perfectly executed give-and-go with Kyle Connor to make it 2-1 at 10:22 of the third. Mikael Backlund evened it up 96 seconds later, which set the stage for Gagner to get his stick on Heinola’s blast at 14:20.
“It was a great shot by Ville. He kept it low, and allowed me to see it the whole way,” said Gagner.
“A lot of teams do that now, they collapse and take away a lot of your slot presence. In order to open that up, it’s important to establish a presence from the point, making sure you’re going low to high and getting pucks to the net. Maybe it spreads teams out. That seems to be what most teams in the league are looking to do now, collapse and take away slot chances. Calgary is one of those teams that does it really well. That was part of our game plan and it worked out.”
2) Connor Hellebuyck being himself: The former Vezina Trophy winner made 33 saves, including several 10-bell ones. None were greater than a highlight-reel one off MacKenzie Weegar in the second period. Hellebuyck is now in the top five in all major goaltending categories including wins (19, good for second), goals-against-average and save percentage.
“Helle, what more can we say? It’s almost like we just expect him to be almost exceptional every night,” said Dillon. “We’re really lucky here with the Jets to have him. “He picks up our bench when we need a save or a turning point like that, and for us to be able to get some run support for him it feels nice to reward him after how well he’s been playing.”
3) Special teams being special: OK, so the power play wasn’t exactly firing, going 0-for-4, but a penalty kill that is one of the NHL’s best came through again, going a perfect 2-for-2. It was a major reason Winnipeg beat Edmonton on New Year’s Eve, with a 5-for-5 effort.
4) No excuses, just solutions: This has been one of Bowness’s favourite sayings all year, but it certainly holds true. Despite being without forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Cole Perfetti, Mason Appleton and Saku Maenalanen, and defencemen Nate Schmidt and Logan Stanley, other players continue to step up and take on bigger roles and minutes. Whether that’s Manitoba Moose callup Kristian Reichel and waiver-wire pickup Karson Kuhlman playing in unlikely top-six roles, or a rotating cast of characters making valuable bottom-six contributions, there’s no shortage of great stories.
In that sense, this was no ordinary Game 38 for some. With Schmidt, Perfetti and Ehlers all returning to action as early as next game, and Wheeler and Maenalanen not far behind them, some tough lineup decisions will have to be made by Bowness and his staff. This may have been a final chance to impress for some. Consider it a good problem to have.
This one was even more unique, with the Jets dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen for the first time all year because of question marks about the health of Morrissey, who managed to tough his way through 23:57 which led all blue liners. The extra D-man, Kyle Capobianco, played just 4:04. Michael Eyssimont was the only healthy scratch.
5) Keeping the foot on the gas: Consider this latest win streak comes immediately after a season-high three-game losing streak, which appears to have upped the urgency around here.
“We’re almost at the halfway mark and we know the position we’ve put ourselves in and that teams are chasing us,” said Dillon.
“We’re expecting their best. It’s not like we’re surprising teams and they’re thinking ‘Oh, we’re going to come in and it’s going to be an all right game.’ It’s going to be a tough game against the Jets. (Tuesday) is a perfect example, a team that’s been talked about in the Stanley Cup conversation, made some big changes this offseason and is a tough defensive and strong offensive team altogether. So we knew it was going to be a good test.”
Next up: The Jets continue the homestand with a visit on Friday from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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.