The Winnipeg Jets passed the first test of a busy, important stretch Sunday — maybe not with flying colours, but with a respectable-enough grade they hope gets them re-focused for the hard work still ahead.
And the 5-1 victory over a surging Dallas Stars squad at Bell MTS Place puts Winnipeg back to the head of the Central Division class.
Adam Lowry, Tyler Myers, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey and Bryan Little scored as the Jets improved to 26-13-2 on the year at the midway point of their 82-game regular-season schedule. They move one point ahead of Nashville for top spot — with two games in hand — and open up a bit of breathing room over Dallas, which entered the day just four points back of Winnipeg and on a 4-0-1 run.
"Any time you play a team in the Central Division it’s huge and very important. I think we proved that last year, that it’s so tight and this division is so talented all the way down. Can’t take a game off," said goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who finished with 26 saves.
The Jets haven't looked themselves lately, beginning the day on a 1-3-0 run and struggling to produce much offence. Several players were in extended scoring slumps, they had just been blanked 4-0 by Pittsburgh two days earlier, and were without the services of Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to longer-term injuries as they played the first of three straight divisional games against teams trying to chase them down.
And after Alexander Radulov gave the visitors a 1-0 lead with a deflected power play goal just 1:56 into the second period, you could almost feel their collective collars tightening even more. But the home team stormed back in an impressive way. Lowry, who was in the penalty box for goalie interference when Dallas scored, made amends by potting his own rebound exactly one minute later.
"I try and play a real disciplined game. I try and play hard but fair, and try and stay out of the box as much as I can. You never like to put your team down and then have them score on it," said Lowry. "It was nice to get a shift a minute after and be able to go out and redeem yourself. It doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes you've got to sit and stew. But it's important you don't dwell on it and become frustrated and let it affect the rest of your game."
Coach Paul Maurice wasn't a fan of the penalty call on Lowry, as Bishop appeared to get in his way while trying to play the puck behind his net.
"I think that was all hockey gods. I think that was just a balancing of the scale on the call," he said of Lowry quickly scoring.
Lowry's line, with Brandon Tanev and Mathieu Perreault, was the most effective of the game for Winnipeg. They were often matched against Dallas' dangerous trio of Radulov, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and held them at bay during five-on-five play.
"They’ve been very consistent. They have a responsibility some nights to play against the other team’s best and some nights they play against their best grinders and they still find a way. Matty Perreault has kind of found himself a nice niche there. He goes in heavy on the forecheck and gets on the body and it’s a rimmed puck; we keep it in and it’s in the net," said Maurice.
"They’ve been consistent and they need to score, too. You play that hard, that consistently you need to have a little bit of a payoff above everyone tapping you on the pads and saying great game."
Myers gave the Jets the lead with just over a minute to play on a nifty wraparound goal that snuck past Ben Bishop. It's the fourth of the year for the big defenceman, who appeared to be doing his best Byfuglien impression by pulling off a move the injured blue-liner often resorts to.
"That seems to be the Buff play. On a play like that you’re just trying to create some chaos in front. Fortunately it went in," said Myers.
Connor gave the Jets some additional breathing room when he broke a 10-game pointless streak just over a minute into the third period. Morrissey's point shot deflected off Blake Wheeler and right on to his stick. It was the 14th of the year for Connor, who was promoted to the top line with Wheeler and Mark Scheifele following the injury to Ehlers.
"Felt good. Nothing’s really changed too much from my game. I thought I was a little quicker (Sunday), played with lots of speed," said Connor. "I think, for us, coach says it a lot. We don’t worry too much about our offence. We know that we can put up goals. If we defend well. I think that’s what really translates and turns into a lot of offensive chances for us."
The final score got padded a bit as Morrissey fired home an empty-netter with 3:30 to play, and then Little scored on the power play with 17 seconds left for his first goal in 12 games.
"It's definitely a relief. For me and for the team, too. We've been struggling to score goals lately and we got back to that simple game plan, and it paid off. Some hard-working goals," said Little. "You definitely, not relax a bit, but there's definitely some weight off the shoulders. You get some confidence. That's why they call it goal legs when you score during a game. It just feels like a weight's been lifted off you and you feel really good. So hopefully that feeling stays."
Hellebuyck said the Jets showed more of the identity they often talk about wanting to get back to, one that was evident in spades last season especially during their run to the third round of the playoffs.
"We’ve never let anything faze us. We finally got back to that and we showed the next shift (after getting scored on Sunday) we were all over it, we were drowning them, and that stuff pays off. Lucky for us, that stuff pays off right away. You’re going to continue to build off that in the year. That’s our identity," said Hellebuyck.
This is a big week for Winnipeg, with fourth-place Colorado coming to town Tuesday followed by a visit to fifth-place Minnesota on Thursday. In total, they'll play nine times over a 16-day stretch heading into their bye week and All-Star break later this month.
"I think when we take a look at that game we have to realize how we got back to a lot of the little things. The forwards were quick down low. Making quick passes, making quick plays. It was right from the opening faceoff. So we’ve got to realize what gave us that success and keep it going," said Myers.
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 Sunday, January 6, 2019 at 8:44 PM CST: Writethru