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This article was published 5/4/2018 (1127 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was a night that offered up some clarity and a few important reminders for the Winnipeg Jets.
First, they took care of business on the ice once again, downing the Calgary Flames 2-1 for their fourth straight victory and 10th in their past 11 games. It certainly wasn’t pretty — more on that in a moment — and perhaps the best thing that could be said about this game is that it moved along relatively quickly.
The win ended up having no bearing on the standings. A Nashville come-from-behind victory in Washington means the Jets (51-20-10) will finish in second place in the Central Division and take on the third-place Minnesota Wild in a first-round playoff match-up that begins next week at Bell MTS Place. Saturday night’s regular-season finale against Chicago will have no impact on the standings and will simply be one last chance to fine-tune their game.
Which brings us to the most important takeaway from Thursday night: if the Jets expect to have any kind of playoff success, they’re going to have to clean up their act a bit. The kinds of mistakes they made against the flickering Flames, especially early in the game, could prove costly against a much stronger opponent such as the Wild.
"We looked like a team that hadn’t practised in a week, maybe 10 days and that’s true," was Jets head coach Paul Maurice’s extremely brief post-game explanation. "We came off a (four-game road) trip and in the first game back, in the first 20 minutes it looked like it happens sometimes. We weren’t particularly good, we got a little better in the second."
The first 15 minutes of the game were scoreless only because Connor Hellebuyck did what he’s been doing pretty much all season — he stood on his head.
A bad pinch by Ben Chiarot was compounded by an equally bad pinch from partner Tyler Myers, gifting Calgary’s Michael Frolik a clear breakaway. Hellebuyck made a great glove save.
Moments later, veteran Paul Stastny made a blind drop pass to nobody. Then Nikolaj Ehlers tried to clear the puck from his own zone and air-mailed it halfway across the rink into the crowd for a penalty.
Then a Joe Morrow point shot in traffic was blocked, giving Flames speedster Johnny Gaudreau another solo rush up the ice. Once again, Hellebuyck answered the bell.
"We don’t give up too many breakaways. But I like that, it’s fun. I’m enjoying myself back there, and I think the crowd loves a nice glove save, so this one was for the crowd tonight," Hellebuyck said following the game.
Calgary had a 10-3 lead in shots halfway through the opening frame, and looked like they were the high-flying team headed to the playoffs, not the reeling squad that has lost nine of their past 10 games. Fans in the arena, perhaps wanting to conserve energy for the coming "Whiteout," were as quiet as they’ve been all year.
"He was the lone person in the building having fun at that point," Maurice said of his goaltender.
Winnipeg finally showed some life in the waning minutes and cashed in when captain Blake Wheeler tipped home a Dustin Byfuglien point shot for his 23rd goal and 90th point of the season with just 47 seconds left in the period.
There were just nine combined hits in the first period, and perhaps the only memorable one was Nick Shore sending Josh Morrissey flying into the boards, backwards. The Jets defenceman was slow to get up and off the ice, but didn’t miss any action.
"We wouldn’t have brought him back unless we were 100 per cent sure he was going to be all right," said Maurice.
Expect a lot more physicality once the Jets start playing for keeps next week.
Which reinforces the other big key for Winnipeg: in addition to trying to keep bad habits to a minimum, staying healthy is the other top priority. With all of the regulars suiting up Thursday night and seemingly coming out unscathed, they have one game left to knock on wood.
Winnipeg’s talent eventually took over the game, even if the players seemed stuck in second gear for much of the night. Stastny had a nifty deflection off a Chiarot point shot to put Winnipeg up 2-0 with just over seven minutes left in the second period.
"I think this time of year you’re going to have to score some goals that way. Nice heads-up play by both guys (Byfuglien and then Chiarot). Go to the net, you get rewarded," said Wheeler.
Calgary cut the lead in half late in the frame, as rookie forward Spencer Foo scored his first NHL goal in his just third game. A point blast struck him in the leg and beat Hellebuyck.
But that would be all for the Flames.
Hellebuyck finished the night with 31 saves, recording his 43rd win of the season. That ties him with Tom Barrasso for most wins in a season by an American-born goalie.
"What an accomplishment for him. Things like that don’t happen every year, so you need to enjoy them when they do happen. We’re thrilled with how he’s played all year. He’s given us a ton of confidence in our defensive zone. The mistakes we do make, he’s making those big saves that maybe in past years we haven’t gotten. For me, that’s all the difference with our team this year," said Wheeler.
Hellebuyck will get a chance to get that record all to himself when the curtain is raised on the regular season Saturday night against the Blackhawks.
"It feels pretty good. All the hard work that we put in this room, it goes to the guys in front of me. My hat’s off to them. They’ve been blocking shots all season long and really staying focused to our details and making my life a lot easier back there," said Hellebuyck. "I know (the 43 wins is) rare, but I couldn’t do it without these guys. I owe ’em. I owe ’em."
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.