Best Jets 2.0 squad in its decade-long history?
Winnipeg’s NHL entry looked solid on paper prior to the start of the 2021-22 season and has substantiated the claims with some tremendous early returns.
The Jets had their engines cranked to the max Friday night, blasting the hapless Chicago Blackhawks 5-1 to extend their perfect record (4-0-0) on home ice.
Winnipeg improved to 6-2-2 and has earned 14 points in its first 10 games, its best season-opening stretch since the franchise move north from Atlanta in time for the 2011-12 season. Three times previously the Jets have started 6-3-1.
The Jets began the year with a pair of defeats in California but have gone 6-0-2 since. Head coach Paul Maurice maintains his club hasn’t reached its ceiling.
"I think we’re still very excited about where we can get to. There’s still lots to learn, there’s lots of development to happen," said Maurice, in his eighth full season behind the Winnipeg bench. "We’re playing with a lot of different things. I’ve liked the way we’ve played. There’s a set of metrics that we want to be better at, but we are much better. Most of those are, in some ways, defensive ideas… still think there’s lots of room to grow in our offensive game."
Andrew Copp was a proficient set-up man, registering a career-best three assists. He fed Paul Stastny and Dominic Toninato at even strength, and also drew a helper on Neal Pionk’s power-play goal.
Long identified as a defensive specialist, Copp continues to blossom as a key offensive weapon, raising his season totals to five goals and seven helpers.
"Growing up, I played this type of game and I feel like I’ve always played this type of game, and now I’ve just gotten better," said Copp. "Give credit where credit’s due. Working (during the off-season) with (NHL Hall of Famer) Adam Oates has really helped in that situation. I feel like he’s really helped evolve my game. But a lot of hard work, a lot of video and just kind of understanding where everyone’s at on the ice.
"I feel like I’ve always been able to understand that, especially defensively, and trying not to use that in an offensive mindset as well. When you’ve got guys like (Nikolaj Ehlers) and (Stastny) getting open and creating more room for me to play, then you might see more passing lanes and trust that they’re gonna be there.
"So, I’ve worked on it tirelessly but a lot of it is credit to other people helping me out with it and my linemates, and we’re not finished. There’s still levels I can get to and get better."
Stastny beat reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Marc-Andre Fleury through the pads just 47 seconds into the game for his fourth tally, while Pionk beefed up the lead less than two minutes later with his first of the year on a dart to the top corner with the Blackhawks a man short.
Toninato, with his first, Kyle Connor, with his team-leading eighth, and Ehlers, with his third, also scored for the hosts, who received a sound 17-save performance from goalie Eric Comrie.
The Jets raised some eyebrows when they put their faith in Comrie to back up Connor Hellebuyck, yet the 26-year-old Edmonton product has muted the doubters early on.
While he had some leisurely stretches, he robbed Nicolas Beaudin just 30 seconds after Pionk upped the Jets’ lead to 2-0, and later had big stops on Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach and Jake McCabe.
MacKenzie Entwistle’s short-handed goal in the final frame was the only blemish on Comrie’s night.
"(A shutout) would be cool… my first shutout, something I’m looking forward to," said Comrie, now 3-0-0 this year. "I’d be crazy to say it’s not going through my mind. Of course it’s going through your mind but I’m just trying to focus on the moment and play, focus on the process. It was bang-bang off the backboard right to the guy… unfortunate, but I mean, just go back to the process of things and let this one take care of itself."
Hellebuyck was home recovering from an illness but is negative for COVID-19. He won’t rejoin the team until he’s clear of symptoms, which could be as soon as tonight as Jets continue a seven-game home stand against the New York Islanders (4-2-2).
If he’s still down for the count, expect Comrie to guard the cage in the second half of the back to back.
"I was sitting on the bench in the last four minutes, kind of look up and it’s 5-1 and it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ You don’t really notice it in the game sometimes because it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just another save’ but (Comrie) was really solid tonight and he’s played solid for us," said Copp. "So, I’m really happy to see that. And talk about another guy who’s on after practice, working. And humble, too.
"I don’t think he’s ever said a bad word about anyone. Especially given the situation over the last couple years, he could have been, ‘Eff this organization,’ you know? I’ve seen it. And they haven’t given (him) an opportunity. And for him to put that aside and come back and kind of shove it right up their… you know. He’s playing great so we’re happy for him."
Keep in mind a couple of things about the Jets.
Prosperity has come without the offensive contributions of either Mark Scheifele or Blake Wheeler. The duo nearly clicked midway through the third period but Fleury denied the Jets captain on a breakaway. Winnipeg is also running one of the league’s worst penalty-killing units.
And a case could be made Hellebuyck, when healthy, wasn’t in top form.
Winnipeg has carved out some early success (3-0-1) in the Central Division and has moved to within a point of the front-running St. Louis Blues (7-1-1). The Blues are here Tuesday night.
Chicago dropped to 1-9-2, with its only win coming five days ago against the visiting Ottawa Senators.
The ’Hawks appeared to cut the lead in half with early power-play marker in the second period, however, Ryan Carpenter’s goal was erased when video replay determined Toews was off-side on the play — 22 seconds before the puck went in.
Jets’ eagle-eyed video coach Matt Prefontaine is paid to be right and he has been, going three-for-three on reviews this season.
"I’d like to see his percentage. It’s got to be pretty high," said Comrie. "He always says he got one wrong call but it wasn’t his fault; someone else called it from the bench, so it wasn’t him. He’s got to be close to 100 per cent and they should start keeping that stat for those guys, too."
Riley Nash was the lone healthy scratch against Chicago, as Maurice elected to go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen for the eighth straight outing.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).