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This article was published 3/3/2020 (233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If the Winnipeg Jets manage to sneak into the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring, they might want to send a "Thank You" card to the Washington Capitals.
Turns out a pair of meetings with the 2017-18 champions last week may have been just what the club needed to get their own game in order. And the valuable lessons they claim to have learned from Alex Ovechkin and friends were on display Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place in a rather neat and tidy 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres,
The win puts the Jets back into a post-season spot with just more than four weeks left on the regular-season calendar.
"We turned the page a little bit in Washington. We got our pace right. I think we saw what a Stanley Cup contending team looked like and how they play the game. They don’t make a whole lot of plays in the neutral zone trying to create offence. They just got pucks in with a ton of speed and forechecked the heck out of us. That’s a pretty effective way to play the game," said captain Blake Wheeler.
I think bottom line is we’re just trying to outwork. That’s our foundation and doing the little things right. I think if we see a play, all three of us have that type of skillset to be able to make it and finish." – Kyle Connor
Things looked rather bleak, you’ll recall, as the Jets fell behind 3-0 last Tuesday in D.C. But some line shuffling — including reuniting the top trio of Wheeler along with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor — sparked a big comeback that ended with a 4-3 shootout loss. Two nights later, the Jets blanked the Capitals 3-0, and followed that up with one of their better all-around efforts of the year Saturday night in a hard-luck 3-2 loss in Edmonton.
Now comes a three-game homestand, which got off to a strong start with a win over the Sabres.
Connor scored twice to set a new career-high, defenceman Tucker Poolman chipped in with a big shorthanded tally and Connor Hellebuyck made 25 saves as the Jets improved to 34-28-6 with 14 regular-season games remaining. They, along with Vancouver, have 74 points and occupy the two wild-card spots, one point ahead of Minnesota and two ahead of Nashville and Arizona. The Wild and Predators have two games in hand, while the Coyotes have one.
"I think we’ve stopped trying to look for manufacturing offence out of nothing. You realize that the other team, it wears them out. It’s tough to go dig pucks out of the corner all night and try to break them out into a heavy, heavy forecheck," said Wheeler.
Buffalo came into the game having dropped three straight to fall out of the Eastern Conference playoff race. But the Jets, who have struggled at times this season with seemingly inferior opponents, didn’t show any signs of playing down to their competition,
"Yeah, I kind of had some good momentum with the way the play was going. I’m sure the coaches weren’t happy I started to go to the net, but it worked out," – Tucker Poolman, who is up to three goals on the year
Connor opened the scoring at 13:59 of the first period, converting a terrific pass from Wheeler for his team-leading 34th of the year. It’s also the fourth straight game he’s lit the lamp.
"First off, we know each other. We’re pretty familiar. We’ve been playing on and off for the past couple years here and we know where we’re going to be in certain spots. That’s where the chemistry comes. I think bottom line is we’re just trying to outwork. That’s our foundation and doing the little things right. I think if we see a play, all three of us have that type of skillset to be able to make it and finish," Connor said of quickly regaining their past chemistry.
Poolman made it 2-0 at 16:05 of the opening frame, this time with Nick Shore in the penalty box for slashing. The defenceman was a bit of a surprise candidate to be going hard to the Buffalo net but was in a perfect position to tip a Connor feed past Sabres goalie Carter Hutton for what turned out to be the game-winner.
"Yeah, I kind of had some good momentum with the way the play was going. I’m sure the coaches weren’t happy I started to go to the net, but it worked out," said Poolman, who is up to three goals on the year.
The Jets penalty kill is coming off a terrific month of February in which they went 31-for-35, including a stretch of 19 straight kills until Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl teamed up for a pair on Saturday in Alberta. It’s quickly gone from being a momentum-killer to a momentum-booster.
Winnipeg extended the lead to 3-0 at 3:41 of the second period, this time while on their own power play. Wheeler fed Scheifele for a one-timer that Hutton stopped, but Connor quickly got his stick on the rebound for his 35th of the year. That surpasses his previous high of 34 goals, set last season.
Buffalo got one back at 10:34 of the middle frame, as defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen banked a shot in off Hellebuyck’s left skate. But that’s as close as they would get as the Jets kept things relatively clean in their own zone while spending plenty of time in Buffalo’s end of the rink.
"The guys locked it down and played smart. They were in the right defensive positions. A lot of it was just making smart little plays and getting the puck out," said Poolman.
The homestand continues Friday with a visit from the Vegas Golden Knights, then concludes next Monday with Arizona in town. Then it’s off on a big three-game swing through Western Canada with stops in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
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