REGINA — A spectacular, snow-swept setting provided a stunning backdrop for an unforgettable Winnipeg Jets victory.
Josh Morrissey scored the tying goal with just more than four minutes to play and Bryan Little tapped in the winner in overtime as the Jets rallied for a 2-1 triumph over the Calgary Flames Saturday night at the Heritage Classic before a sold-out crowd of 33,518 at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.
Winnipeg improved to 6-6-0 on the season, while Calgary dropped to 6-5-2.
"It’s up there," Little said, when asked where the tally ranks in his career. It was especially sweet considering the veteran centre missed the 2016 Heritage Classic at Winnipeg's IG Field with a knee injury.
"It was definitely frustrating watching from the sidelines and not getting to experience it," he said. "So, when I heard we were playing outside I definitely had this one circled on my calendar and it definitely lived up to everything."
Little had just returned from a concussion a week ago after missing the first nine games of this season.
It was an emotional return to Saskatchewan for Morrissey, as his father and grandparents grew up in Regina. He also played his junior hockey up the highway in Prince Albert.
"On a lot of levels it was really exciting to come back. I guess when I turned pro and made the NHL I didn’t anticipate necessarily we’d get a chance to play back here in Saskatchewan, so I really tried to soak it in and thought a lot about my grandparents, who passed away before I made the NHL and they would have had a chance to watch me, so to come back here where they lived their whole lives was pretty special," said Morrissey.
Coach Paul Maurice said the pair couldn't have found a better stage to score their first goals of the young season.
"Such important people in our room, character guys. Guys that are team first all the time. Great leaders. They get to keep this. (Their) family's here. They get to share that with them after. Those are the people that should enjoy a game like tonight," said Maurice.
There's no doubt the outdoor spectacle and first-ever NHL game in Regina was always going to be the story on this night, regardless of the result. It was a chilly -3 C at puck drop, with a north wind gusting to 43 km/h that had it feeling more like -10 C. There was a bit of a snow-globe effect as flurries picked up shortly after the action got underway.
"The fireworks are going on, the (military) jets come over, 'O Canada' is on, it’s snowing out. I had said earlier, you just needed Santa and the reindeer blasting over and it would have been the perfect scene," Maurice said.
Still, there was business to attend to and the Jets were thrilled to come away with two big points, especially after it looked for the longest time like they may suffer yet another loss thanks to some familiar struggles — an inability to kill penalties and a goal-scoring drought.
Elias Lindholm gave the Flames a 1-0 lead with just over five minutes left in the second period, scoring on the power play. Winnipeg is dead-last in the NHL in penalty killing, and once again a trip to the sin bin proved costly.
This one wasn't without some controversy, as the Jets thought Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk knocked a puck down with a high stick seconds earlier. Maurice challenged the play, and some replay angles suggested he had a case. However, the NHL ruled otherwise.
"I'm making that call all day long just because I wouldn't have got off the bench. I'd be a tape ball in the corner. So, I did what I felt was right." - Jets head coach Paul Maurice on his challenge on Tkachuk's high stick
Making matter worse, Winnipeg was issued a delay of game penalty for the failed video review. And while the team managed to kill that one off, the damage was already done.
"I'm looking at it and I'm thinking this thing might be a high stick. And the TV is set on our bench — it's not behind the bench, all the players (can see it) and they're losing their minds and it's clearly a high stick in their feeling. I'm making that call all day long just because I wouldn't have got off the bench. I'd be a tape ball in the corner. So, I did what I felt was right," Maurice said.
The Jets began the night with just one win in their past five games, scoring just seven goals in that span. A big reason has been a power play that is lacking any punch. And that trend continued early, with Winnipeg failing on the first three power plays of the night.
However, their fortunes changed when Mark Giordano hauled down Andrew Copp with just over five minutes left in the final frame. Maurice put Morrissey back on the top unit — Neal Pionk started the night in that role — and the move paid off.
Morrissey's one-timer blast, off a pass from Patrik Laine, went through a double-screen in front of Calgary goalie David Rittich and snuck under the crossbar.
"I just gave it to him and he shot it to the net. That’s kind of my setup. Just tried to get him the puck and he’ll take care of the rest," Laine said. "Just tried to do the same things, just tried to shoot a lot of pucks and tried to be hard on pucks and win battles and got rewarded at the end. It was a huge goal for us."
The Jets got another chance with the man advantage early in the three-on-three overtime session, as Sean Monahan tripped up Mark Scheifele. But Blake Wheeler ringing iron was the closest they came.
It was just 25 seconds after the power play expired that Little played the role of hero, streaking down the ice on a two-on-one rush with Kyle Connor, who fed a perfect pass. Little had the back-door tap-in and the Jets faithful inside the packed stadium exploded.
"It’s pretty cool. I felt like it was one of those games where I pretty much didn’t have any chances and then you get a two-on-one like that in overtime," said the veteran centre. And I’ll admit I really didn’t do too much. I just went to the net and put my stick on the ice and Kyle made a great pass, so, it was definitely a great feeling."
Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck was sharp all night, making 29 saves. One of his biggest came on the opening shift, as Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau slipped behind Morrissey and Tucker Poolman on a breakaway.
There was also a wild sequence in the second period where he made a falling toe save on a re-directed puck, then blocking another puck with his face while on his belly.
"It actually got me in the chin. That was crazy. I sort of saw it coming from the corner and I heard it hit something and then all of the sudden it popped up in the crease. It was a full-battle moment," said Hellebuyck, who savoured every minute of the memorable event.
"I thought it was fantastic. The crowd was great. Our fans were amazing. The snowfall, I kept getting a couple of snowflakes in the eyes, so that was new. I thought it was really cool, a great experience and I’m going to cherish that one."
The Jets now head to California to thaw out a bit. They'll enjoy the day off Sunday, practise Monday and then take on the Anaheim Ducks Tuesday night. Then it's on to play games in San Jose and Las Vegas later in the week.
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.