You really can go home again. Just ask the Michigan men on the Winnipeg Jets, who made Thursday night’s pit-stop in the Motor City one to remember.
Connor Hellebuyck, the pride of nearby Commerce, stopped all 33 shots he faced for his first-ever NHL triumph in his birthplace. Ann Arbor’s Andrew Copp scored the first two goals of the night to hit double-digits on the season. And Shelby Township’s Kyle Connor, fresh off being named the club’s lone All-Star representative, sealed the deal on a 3-0 victory with a short-handed empty-netter to go along with an earlier assist.
"It must be something in the water here, I guess," joked Connor.
"It’s something that, we haven’t played here in a while, first off, and we spend a lot of time here, grew up here, and all three of us have idolized watching the Wings growing up, so it’s a little bit extra pep in your step coming here and playing against the Wings and it seemed like (Copp and Hellebuyck) had an extra gear. And it was definitely motivating having family and friends out in the stands as well."
There’s no home cooking happening lately on game days for the Jets, who are in the middle of a nearly month-long slate in which they are playing exclusively on the road for pandemic-related reasons. But perhaps this served as the next best thing for the three locals, who filled their bellies and sparked a severely depleted roster to a much-needed two points.
"I think there was no secret that when we landed, they got off the plane and got on the tarmac and they ran. They were excited," said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. "We should maybe tell them more often that we’re playing games in Michigan. But yeah, we expected them to be good."
Winnipeg improved to 17-12-5, while Detroit dropped to 16-17-5.
The Jets were coming off a week-long break following a three-game road trip that began with victories in Vegas and Arizona and ended with a lopsided 7-1 loss to Colorado. Casual viewers probably needed a program to recognize the group that hit the ice at Little Caesers Arena.
Consider this: Five of the 18 skaters didn’t have an NHL point on their resume at puck drop. Two of them were making their big-league debuts in defencemen Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm. Two forwards were playing their fourth-career games in Cole Perfetti and C.J. Suess. A third, Austin Poganski, was also making his Jets debut, having played in just six prior NHL games with St. Louis. All five of those skaters have been key contributors with the Manitoba Moose.
But opportunity came knocking due to Winnipeg having eight players enter COVID-19 protocols this week, including high-end forwards Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny, top four defenceman Brenden Dillon and backup goalie Eric Comrie. The others — forward Kristian Reichel and defencemen Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola — have severely depleted the depth.
What Thursday’s lineup may have lacked in experience, it certainly made up for in enthusiasm. And the Jets, no doubt sick and tired of practising, had their legs going early.
"I really liked the energy that the young guys who came into the lineup brought. We challenged some of our top guys, we needed them to be our best players, and they accepted the challenge," said Lowry.
Copp got the homecoming party started just 5:41 into the game, wristing a shot from a bizarre angle behind the Detroit goal-line and banking it off the back of the head of Red Wings goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. Evgeny Svechnikov, playing for the first time against the team that drafted him 19th overall in 2015 only to cut him loose last summer, drew the first assist.
And Samberg, the 22-year-old who doesn’t even have an NHL pre-season game on his resume, had the second helper. Just like the that, the Minnesotan had a keepsake puck for his trophy shelf at home.
Winnipeg doubled its lead midway through the second period, just as a Josh Morrissey penalty had expired. Connor and Copp were sprung on a two-on-one by Nate Schmidt, and it was Copp pulling the trigger on his 10th of the campaign.
"I definitely had a lot of chances. I felt like I could have had more, but happy to come away with a big win, especially missing some guys and not having played in a little while," said Copp.
Winnipeg’s penalty kill had a big night, surviving all five penalties they took. That included an extended five-on-three late in the third period, that turned into a six-on-three when Detroit pulled Nedeljkovic.
"It was crazy seeing that happen. I hadn’t been in too many of those situations," Hellebuyck said. "The second it happened, I was just thinking to myself, ‘You have to earn it. You got to earn the shutout.’ The guys in front of me did a phenomenal job. They kept the shots in front of me, they kept the rebounds away and they stopped any cross-crease stuff. I thought our aggressiveness was perfect and we were working as a unit. When we do that, we’re a really good team."
Hellebuyck said the 26th shutout of his career quickly goes near the very top of his personal list.
"It’s a different feeling coming home. You get a little more nerves and you get a little more excited and then, maybe you get off your routine a little bit because I went home and was able to spend the night in my own bed, which was nice," he said. "But being home in front of family and friends, people are going to remember this one and I am, too."
The Jets chartered home after the game, and will now have another extended break before they return to action next Tuesday in Washington. The majority of players in COVID-19 protocol, if not all of them, should be available by that point.
"I thought our team game was really good. So, I was really happy for the team, for the win, and then obviously for the Michigan boys to perform like we did," said Copp.
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.