Mark Scheifele’s absence was certainly felt by the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night, but not in the way many feared.

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This article was published 29/12/2017 (1431 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mark Scheifele’s absence was certainly felt by the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night, but not in the way many feared.

Shawn Matthias, inserted into the lineup for the first time in nearly a month to fill the empty roster spot, scored on his first shift of the game. The new-look top line of Blake Wheeler centring Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor struck for a pair of goals. And Adam Lowry got a power-play tally on the revamped No. 1 unit. It all added up to an impressive 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders at Bell MTS Place.

You couldn’t have scripted a better start as the Jets played their first game without Scheifele, their No. 1 centre and second-leading scorer who is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks with an upper-body injury.

"I think a lot of guys stepped up and are going to need to. He’s obviously a huge part of what we do here, Mark. So I think all around the team we have to step up and elevate our game," said Connor, who finished the night with a goal and assist.

It might not have mattered if not for goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who had one of his finest performances of an already impressive season. Hellebuyck made 42 saves, many of the "how in the world did he do that" variety, to preserve the win.

'It's a testament to guys being good teammates, staying with it and staying in the fight'‐ Jets captain Blake Wheeler on the first game without Mark Scheifele 

Winnipeg improves to 22-11-6, while New York drops to 20-14-4.

"I think pucks were just hitting me and I was seeing it well. The guys were in the right spots. I like our effort. I like how we were able to put four (goals) against them because they’re not an easy team and it feels good," said Hellebuyck, who recorded his 20th win of the season.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Blake Wheeler celebrates the team's second goal against the New York Islanders Friday night.</p>

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press

Blake Wheeler celebrates the team's second goal against the New York Islanders Friday night.

Hellebuyck had to be sharp right off the opening faceoff. The Islanders appeared certain to open the scoring, as former Jets captain Andrew Ladd had a glorious chance on a two-on-one rush in the first minute, but Hellebuyck somehow made an acrobatic split save to keep it scoreless, then robbed Jordan Eberle with another great stop just seconds later.

"I think those saves are what I’m here for and that’s what I’ve been working for," said Hellebuyck. "I don’t love having huge saves like that because that means usually you make a mistake and you have to cover for yourself, but once in a while it feels good."

Matthias, who had been a healthy scratch for 20 of the past 21 games including 11 in a row, put the Jets on the board just 2:32 into the game. He went hard to the net and knocked home a loose puck for his first goal of the season. Matthias had been severely snake-bitten in his 18 previous games this year, so you knew this one felt good.

"It was awesome. It’s a testament to guys being good teammates, staying with it and staying in the fight. It’s probably the least enjoyable part of this job, when you’re out of the lineup, you’re working out every day, you’re getting skated and sometimes it seems like the end (of being a healthy scratch) is nowhere in sight," Wheeler said following the game. "But you can tell those guys work really hard at it. That’s the payoff right there, a guy jumps back in the lineup and scores a big goal for us."

The teams were trading plenty of chances early, and the revamped top line struck with just over three minutes left in the opening frame. Laine fed Connor, who made a perfect pass to Wheeler for the one-timer. It was the 10th goal of the season for the captain, and gives the Jets five players with double-digit goal tallies.

"We did a good job. Unfortunately (Scheifele) is not coming back anytime soon, so we’ve got to rely on the guys in the room. Everyone takes responsibility in that, everyone has got to step their game up a little bit. Do a little bit more, do a little bit better. So far, so good," said Wheeler.

Defenceman Ben Chiarot was one of those, coming to Hellebuyck’s rescue in the final minute by blocking a Cal Clutterbuck shot with his foot that seemed destined for an open net.

The Jets got some bad news to start the second, as forward Brandon Tanev was ruled out of the game with a lower-body injury. He is considered day-to-day, coach Paul Maurice said following the game.

PHIL HOSSACK / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Shawn Matthias celebrates the team’s first goal against the New York Islanders Friday — it was his first goal of the season.</p></p>

PHIL HOSSACK / Winnipeg Free Press

Shawn Matthias celebrates the team’s first goal against the New York Islanders Friday — it was his first goal of the season.

Joel Armia moved up to take Tanev’s spot on an effective checking line with Lowry and Andrew Copp. Lowry made his presence felt when he crushed John Tavares with a good clean hit later in the period.

Tavares got some revenge a few minutes later when his shot was tipped by linemate Anders Lee and past Hellebuyck with just over five minutes left in the second.

Winnipeg began the third on a power play thanks to an Eberle faceoff violation penalty but again couldn’t cash in against the league’s second-worst penalty kill unit. However, they did seem to generate some momentum which paid off when Laine fed Connor for the rookie’s 12th of the season just over three minutes into the period.

The Islanders didn’t get their first shot of the third until it was halfway done, but Hellebuyck made an outstanding leg save on Ladd once again.

"Poor Laddy. (Hellebuyck) made a few big ones on him and that changes everything. You start the game off like that (with a goal against), it’s a here we go again type of thing, to when we played in their building," Wheeler said of last week’s 5-2 loss, in which Winnipeg surrendered two goals on the first two shots of the game. "To keep that goose egg on the board, to get going a little bit, that’s what changes the game. You can’t say enough about it, it makes all of the difference in winning and losing."

Lowry capped a great game by tipping a Jacob Trouba point shot on the power play late in the period, with Wheeler drawing the other assist. Lee finished off the scoring with just over three minutes to play when he roofed a rebound for his team-leading 24th of the year.

"That’s kind of playoff hockey right there. You lose to a team, you want to come right back and show them ‘you didn’t beat us, you got lucky,’" said Hellebuyck.  "Especially at home when we want to give our fans a good game and I think that’s what we did."

Winnipeg now hits the road for two games, including a New Year’s Eve tilt in Edmonton.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.

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