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This article was published 17/3/2021 (213 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Nikolaj Ehlers went from potential goat to hero in the blink of an eye.
The flashy Winnipeg Jets winger scored 55 seconds into overtime Wednesday night to give his club a 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens. It came shortly after a missed defensive assignment led to a point-blank Jeff Petry scoring chance, which Connor Hellebuyck turned aside.
"I already said thank you to Bucky. He saved me a little there," a sheepish Ehlers said following the game. "I mean, I should have had it, but that’s three-on-three right there. You get a big chance one way that usually ends up either in the net, or it’s going the other way for a big chance. So luckily today it went the right way for us."
Just like that, the Jets stayed true to recent form by following up a disappointing result with a positive outcome. But this latest bounce back effort required more work than probably should have been the case — and nearly slipped out of their hands entirely.
Winnipeg started the third period up 3-1 and seemingly with the game in control, only to sit back far too much and surrender a pair of goals, including the tying tally by Tyler Toffoli with 1:25 left in the final frame.
But they managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat, improving to 8-0-1 this season following a regulation loss. That shows an impressive ability to quickly turn the page when things don’t go their way and is a big part of why they’re now 18-9-2 on the year and just two points behind Toronto for first place in the all-Canadian division.
"Not losing two straight is just a testament to the leadership, kind of character we’ve got in the locker room. You get a little bitter, a little sour taste and everybody, if we lose a game, we know that next night we’re coming out hard," said forward Kyle Connor.
Montreal falls to 13-8-8. Three of those overtime losses have come to the Jets, who are 6-1 in the three-on-three session.
Winnipeg was burned by some defensive sins on Monday night in a 3-1 loss to the Habs to kick off their quick two-game series. Yet it was some timely aggression from the blue-line that paid dividends in the rematch 48 hours later. All three Jets goals in regulation came off plays in which Montreal looked like they were about to get the puck out of their own zone, only for Jets defencemen to quickly turn it back the other way.
The first, by Derek Forbort, happened on the opening shift. The veteran picked the right time to pinch, keeping the play alive and feeding captain Blake Wheeler who fired a shot past Carey Price. The goal, Wheeler’s eighth of the year, came just 50 seconds into the game.
"You score on the first shift, as a team that’s always nice. You wish you could start every single game like that. But you know what, a start like that just shows that our leaders and our captain was ready to go," said Ehlers.
Forbort did it again later in the period, allowing the line of Ehlers, Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois to cycle the puck down low. Ehlers tried to pass to Dubois in front of the net, but the puck went off his skate and directly to Connor, who basically had an open net at that point.
Montreal cut the deficit in half 1:26 into the second period as Phillip Danault beat Hellebuyck with a snap shot. Defenceman Logan Stanley got caught out of position on the play, showing there’s also a risk to the potential rewards. But Winnipeg restored the two-goal lead at 13:42 after Josh Morrissey stopped a Montreal clearing attempt and got the puck to Dubois, who fed Connor for his second of the night and team-leading 16th of the year.
Connor also had both goals in Monday’s loss to the Habs, and he scored twice against Montreal in a 6-3 victory on Feb. 25. All six snipes have come against Price.
"There’s a time and a place for (pinching). I thought, for the most part we had it pretty good. I liked what our forwards did on a lot of those pinches. I think that it’s an area that we can exploit a little bit more," said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
Brendan Gallagher brought Montreal within striking distance when he scored off a scrambled face-off, which Adam Lowry actually won, at 5:58 of the third period. Lowry got the puck back to Neal Pionk, who was quickly stripped of it by the pesky Montreal winger who beat Hellebuyck through the five-hole.
Winnipeg spent the rest of the period hanging on for dear life, with Toffoli somehow being left all alone by Morrissey at the side of the Jets net to take a pass from Corey Perry for the equalizer with Price pulled for an extra attacker.
"I don’t think that’s prevalent in our game. We’ve been a really, really strong third-period team but we didn’t move the puck and they’re a real good team in terms of getting on top of you. I thought we made good decisions in the first period about when to make a play and when not to make a play. We came off those good decisions," Maurice said of how the script got flipped for the final 20 minutes.
"Part of it was their aggressiveness. We had a lot of icings there in the third period and I thought we had places for plays to make. But I haven’t found that to be part of our game or a third-period theme at all for our team. We’ve been pretty strong in the third and we’ll take the two points, find a way to win."
After Hellebuyck stopped Petry in overtime, Dubois won a puck battle with him and fed a streaking Ehlers, who buried his 15th of the season. Dubois finished the night with three assists.
"You know what, to be honest, I think I played like (expletive) today. My linemates were playing a really good game, but as a line, it’s been working really well," said Ehlers. "It’s three guys with a lot of speed and we try to use that as much as possible. We’re shooting pucks and they’re going in for us right now, so that’s very exciting."
Hellebuyck made 33 saves for the victory. Price stopped 26 pucks in a losing effort.
The Jets headed straight from the rink to the airport after the game to fly to Edmonton, where they’ll begin their longest road trip of the year tonight with the first of two straight meetings against the Oilers. Winnipeg will then move on to Vancouver for two games, followed by three straight in Calgary, before returning home at the end of the month.
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.