The Stanley Cup playoffs are three months away, with plenty of hockey to be played between now and then. But as spring-like weather blew into town Sunday to provide a brief respite from the cold, the Winnipeg Jets passed another big test which shows they might just be up for the challenge that lies ahead.
Winnipeg gave the kind of performance needed to succeed every spring — top-notch goaltending, contributions from so-called role players, solid special teams and attention to defensive detail — as it beat the battle-tested San Jose Sharks 4-1 at Bell MTS Place.
Winnipeg improves to 25-11-7 on the year, including 5-0-1 since returning from the Christmas break.
Meanwhile, San Jose falls to 21-13-6.
"Any time you get to play against big (Joe) Thornton and (Brent) Burns and (Joe) Pavelski and those guys, it’s a playoff game. I’ve played against them a lot. My first playoff series, when I was with the Avalanche, was against them. They’re phenomenal players and a phenomenal team. When the Sharks come into our rink, we’re going to be ready to play," Matt Hendricks said.
The veteran centre helped set the tempo.
He dropped gloves with defenceman Brenden Dillon just over two minutes into the game, exchanging a series of powerful punches, then opened the scoring just past the midway mark of the first on a breakaway dash that beat Martin Jones.
"Just doing my part. Got a good break there on the goal. It feels good to help the team out any way that I can," said Hendricks, who is up to four goals on the year.
Winnipeg’s bottom-six forwards got an emergency makeover just before the game as Adam Lowry was a late scratch because of to an upper-body injury.
Rookie Jack Roslovic made his season debut with the Jets, skating on the fourth line with Hendricks and Marko Dano.
Shawn Matthias moved up to the third line with Joel Armia and Andrew Copp.
Dano made it 2-0 midway through the second, deflecting a slap shot from Jacob Trouba for his second goal of the season.
Both goals have come in the four games since he returned to the lineup, after being a healthy scratch for 30 games straight.
"Because of his personality and the importance in our room, they love when the fourth line scores," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said of Hendricks.
"We got two goals off the fourth line — really important. We have three of our top nine guys out of the lineup, albeit two of them in more of a shutdown role. We’re going to need that," he said, referring to Lowry, Brandon Tanev and Mark Scheifele, who are all on the shelf.
Copp, who shifted from wing to centre Sunday, assisted on the goals from Hendricks and Dano.
"It’s a testament to each guy stepping up and carrying a bit more of the load. Obviously, our leadership has done a great job," Copp said of continuing to play well through recent injuries.
Coming into the game, much had been made of Dustin Byfuglien playing 17:53 in Friday’s 4-3 win over Buffalo and his complaints one day later.
He certainly didn’t help his cause with another tough outing, in which he played 18:48, fourth among blue-liners ahead of only Dmitry Kulikov and Toby Enstrom, who returned to the lineup after missing 23 games with an injury.
With Tyler Myers in the box for tripping, Byfuglien was given a chance to help kill the penalty.
It’s a role he hasn’t been used in much lately.
He responded by taking a hooking penalty that put his team down a pair for 1:06.
Logan Couture cut the lead in half shortly after Myers got out of the box, ripping a shot just under the bar past Connor Hellebuyck. Couture had been near the net all day, hitting two posts earlier in the game.
The Sharks nearly tied it later in the period, as an ill-advised Byfuglien pinch led to a 2-on-1.
But Hellebuyck came up with a big stop, only to be run over by San Jose’s Chris Tierney in the process.
Enstrom appeared to push him into the crease, and the Sharks were incredulous about being penalized.
It was a critical moment.
Winnipeg’s power play, ranked No. 1 in the NHL on home ice and No. 2 overall, made them pay.
Myers unloaded a cannon, which was tipped by Blake Wheeler onto the stick of Mathieu Perreault, who beat Jones with just 57 seconds left in the middle frame.
"That was a huge goal that took us into the third with a two-goal lead," Perreault said.
"I feel like we’ve been able to find the lanes and get a lot of pucks on goal. A lot of goals that we’ve scored, just like (Sunday’s) goal, were just kind of a rebound, just banging pucks around the crease.
"This is usually what makes a good power play: when you can find those rebounds around the net — and we’ve been able to do that."
The Jets locked it down in the third period with a clear emphasis on being responsible in their own end and getting all five players back to defend. Perreault sealed the win with an empty-netter, with just over three minutes to play. He’s up to 12 goals on the season.
"I feel like this year, better than the past few years for sure, we’ve been really good at holding onto leads, and we did that again. So it was a huge win and we’re happy," Perreault said.
The Jets are 16-3-1 at Bell MTS Place, the second-best home record in the league.
"It means a lot because we play 41 games here. We seem real comfortable here. Our fans are great. It gets proud loud, pretty noisy. I remember being an opponent in here. It’s a hard environment to play in when you’re a road team," Hendricks said.
Hellebuyck made 31 saves and improved his record to 23-4-6.
"It just gives us confidence. We come into this room and on any given night, we know we’re the team to beat. We’re confident. We’re walking that line of almost arrogance," Copp said.
"We know we have a great group in here and we can be the best team in the league on any given night.
"Having that home record brings confidence for us, (having Hellebuyck) in net is confidence for us."
Winnipeg now begins a stretch in which it will play six of its next seven games on the road, beginning Tuesday in Buffalo.
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