PITTSBURGH — The Winnipeg Jets have conquered their personal house of horrors. And like most good thrillers, this one involved a plot twist nobody saw coming.
A depleted Jets squad that many had written off for dead skated away with an impressive (some might say improbable) 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena, evening their record at 2-2-0 following a season-opening four-game eastern road trip.
They also snapped an 18-game franchise losing streak against the Penguins that dates all the way back to 2006, when the team was still located in Atlanta. Since then, it’s been nothing but misery, with Pittsburgh being the only city they had yet to win in since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011.
It seemed like a safe bet that trend would continue Tuesday, given the battered blue line the Jets were forced to ice. No Dustin Byfuglien. No Josh Morrissey. No Dmitry Kulikov. No Nathan Beaulieu. No chance, right?
It sure looked that way when Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored on the first shift with the first shot of the game when a defensive mixup left him all alone in front of Connor Hellebuyck for the tap-in. But then a funny thing happened on the way to a 19th straight defeat. The undermanned Jets slowly began to take over the game, putting the Penguins on their heels for long stretches of play and ultimately getting rewarded for their good work.
"I think we’ve got the character in this room to bounce back. We used that to motivate us for the next shift and we carried that on. The guys in front of us really put the pressure on. They grinded hard," said Hellebuyck, who stopped the next 37 shots he faced to earn his first victory of the season.
First up was 18-year-old Ville Heinola, who scored his first NHL goal on a blast following a great Mark Scheifele feed. The rookie has been the biggest surprise of the season so far, and continues to write a great story with every game he plays. He was all smiles as he returned to the bench, where teammates had grabbed the keepsake puck for him.
"It was really good that it comes now, so I don’t have to wait anymore. Mark gave me a good pass and I just shot," said Heinola, whose parents came from Finland to watch the first three games in the New York area but missed this one after flying to Winnipeg.
"It was a good moment for me, of course. It was exciting. Of course, I was dreaming of that," he said.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said there’s no question the entire team got a lift from Heinola’s milestone marker.
"They really like this guy, he’s got a big smile on his face, he works really, really hard. And the players always kind of respect talent," said Maurice. "He does so many good little things that the guys that are on the ice appreciate. There was a real big cheer for him."
Then it was Nikolaj Ehlers, who intercepted a terrible Pittsburgh pass attempt and unleashed a rocket of a shot past Penguins netminder Matt Murray midway through the opening frame. Suddenly, a team that had only played with a lead for 143 seconds through its first three games was in unfamiliar territory, out in front.
Rather than sit back and hope to hang on, the Jets continued to press. Tucker Poolman made it 3-1 just 54 seconds into the middle frame, and then Neal Pionk got his stick on a loose puck during a wild goalmouth scramble to increase the visitor’s lead to 4-1 by the time the game was barely halfway over.
Go figure that half of Winnipeg’s defencemen on the night lit the lamp.
"It feels good as a group. We have a younger D corps but we’re all here for a reason. We’ve proven it at other levels. We play our system and we use five-man support, and we’re gonna be all right," said Pionk.
"We just communicated, before the game and during the game. We talked to each other and we said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be smart tonight and move pucks north as quick as we can and keep it simple.’"
Scheifele and Patrik Laine had assists on all three of the goals from defencemen Heinola, Poolman and Pionk, with Laine already up to five assists in four games. He had 20 helpers all of last season, so perhaps the Finnish sniper has added playmaker to his resumé.
"Just playing with those two (Scheifele and Blake Wheeler), everybody knows that they’re among the best players in this league, so you’ve got to give them the puck and they’ll score pretty often," said Laine.
Scheifele looked to have given Winnipeg a 5-1 lead late in the frame when he took a pass from Laine and made a sensational individual move to beat Murray. Problem was, linemate Blake Wheeler was a hair offside on the zone entry. The Penguins successfully challenged, wiping the goal off the board, along with what would have been four-point nights for Scheifele and Laine.
The Jets sat back for much of the third period, giving the Penguins plenty of offensive-zone time and shots but little in the way of great chances. What did go on net was easily turned away by Hellebuyck.
There’s no question Winnipeg’s No. 1 netminder was under some scrutiny, coming off a tough pre-season and an even tougher first game Thursday in New York, in which he was beaten five times on 31 shots. Given the patchwork defensive group in front of him, this had the potential to be a long night at the office.
But Hellebuyck looked poised and confident in the net after sitting the past two games in favour of backup Laurent Brossoit.
"Well, he needed a piece of it. He was good and solid and just kind of built. And then we were leaning on him real heavy (in the third)," said Maurice.
"He looked like Connor Hellebuyck. He was big. There’s some things that hit him, a bunch of things he found, he got across the crease twice, made a great save, and then he made a bunch of saves that you’ve got to watch the video to appreciate how good they were. So he looked right on."
Pittsburgh wasn’t at full capacity, either, with centres Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad out with injuries. Two players called up from their AHL-affiliate in Wilkes-Barre made their NHL debuts, but the Pens still put plenty of pucks on net.
"I felt good in the net and I thought the guys in front of me played very hard. They were blocking shots and controlling the shots from the outside. It was a team win," said Hellebuyck.
"It is only Game 4 but we knew we had to close this road trip off right. We had to get ahead of things and I think everyone came in with the right mindset and was ready to work."
The Jets flew back to Winnipeg following the game and will enjoy today off. They return to action on Thursday night at Bell MTS Place with the home opener against the Minnesota Wild.
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.
Updated on Tuesday, October 8, 2019 at 8:58 PM CDT: Adds photos
10:58 PM: Full write through.