It appears some members of the Winnipeg Jets might be taking this whole "stay in the fight" thing a bit too far.
Just look at Nikolaj Ehlers, for example. The speedy, skilled winger with the slick hands decided to use them for evil instead of good on Sunday afternoon at Bell MTS Place, going all Rocky Balboa by dropping his gloves and squaring off with Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.
Although the 6'0, 172-pound Ehlers may have lost the battle — Getzlaf, with a four-inch, 53 pound advantage definitely got the better of the unexpected duel — his team ultimately won the game, a hard-fought 3-2 decision that continues a recent trend.
Solid goaltending in the form of 31 saves by Connor Hellebuyck. Timely scoring, including the game-winner by Mark Scheifele with just over four minutes left in the third period. Strong special teams play, including killing off two minors and scoring a pivotal power play goal of their own.
And, of course, the continued ability to stay in the fight, both figuratively and literally in this case, which has become an adopted motto for this year's group.
"Same weight class, right?," Ehlers joked after the game when asked about the surprising scrap, which is the third of his NHL career after previous bouts with Colton Sissons and Tyson Barrie, who are a little more his size. "No, I had a bad period. I couldn’t really get it going. He gave me a cross-check after I passed it and then, yeah. I think it was kind of mutual thing. That’s the way it goes sometimes."
Lately, it's been going pretty well for Ehlers and the Jets, now 18-10-2 on the year and 12-3-2 since the start of November. With 38 points through 30 games, that trails only 2018-19 (40 points) and 2017-18 (39 points) for the team's best record at this point of the season since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in the fall of 2011.
That kind of lofty overall performance was somewhat expected with a loaded lineup the last two years. Not so much this season, with all kinds of roster turnover and question marks about their personnel. Perhaps most telling, Winnipeg is now an NHL-best 12-2-2 in games decided by one goal, showing no signs of panic when there's not a lot of breathing room. To quote coach Paul Maurice, they're getting very comfortable being uncomfortable.
And that would seem to apply to having their leading goal-scorer go toe-to-toe with Getzlaf.
"He’s a sick man. He really is. You know, he was going after Jamie Benn a couple of nights ago and now, (Getzlaf). We’re going to have to talk to him about that a little bit. I mean, outside of that, what can you say? What a helluva job by a little guy. That dude has got some fire in his belly, for sure. That was pretty awesome," said captain Blake Wheeler.
Maurice joked that he sent Ehlers over the boards with the specific intention of chucking some knuckles.
"That was foolish, wasn’t it? But God bless him, don’t do it again. Ever," said Maurice. "We’re hoping for survival. No problem with the spontaneous events that happen on the ice. And you know what? Good for Nik. Nik is truly tougher than people think. He’s got a pretty good uppercut. I don’t want Nik fighting. I don’t want him getting hurt. But good on him for him getting to the level that he couldn’t take it anymore."
The Jets never trailed in this one, as Scheifele opened the scoring at 9:02 of the first period, finishing off a nifty passing sequence with Mathieu Perreault and Kyle Connor. The lead was short-lived, as Anaheim's Jakob Silfverberg tied it 28 seconds later after a no-look backhand pass from Rickard Rakell.
Winnipeg jumped back in front at 18:09 of the second period when Adam Lowry beat Gibson from the slot. His third of the year was assisted by linemates Perreault and Andrew Copp, and came after Lowry appeared to injure his hand earlier in the frame after blocking a shot. He briefly left the bench, but showed no ill-effect.
Devin Shore tied it up at 8:04 of the third, knocking home a loose puck during a wild goal-mouth scramble.
But the Jets finished it off at 15:38, with Getzlaf in the box for tripping. Scheifele rang a shot off the crossbar right off the ensuing face-off, but didn't miss on his next chance, ripping a shot past John Gibson for the winner. He's now up to 13 goals on the season, tied with Ehlers for the team lead.
"First is not letting you frustration level get off the charts when the first period isn’t the way you want it. So that takes some experience and we’ve got some good, veteran guys and they know sometimes the first period looks like that, especially coming back in off the road, off our schedule," Maurice said of the current mindset of his confident club.
"So understanding that the game is going to look a certain way, knowing what to expect, and giving yourself an opportunity to get better just mentally, just saying, ‘We weren’t great but we can get better in this game,’ always leaves the door open. It’s a little bit more of a positive way to approach your game but we’ve done it so long now, I think it’s in our room. If we aren’t good in the first, that doesn’t mean we can’t be great in the second or third."
Hellebuyck preserved the win with a series of big saves in the final couple minutes, which included Lowry in the box for cross-checking and Gibson eventually pulled for an extra attacker. In one wild sequence, he made a blocker save, a sliding pad stop and lost his stick behind the net.
"It probably looked a lot like chaos, but for me, I was pretty calm in there just trying to turn pucks away and getting them as far away from me as possible," said Hellebuyck, who continues to be among the league leaders in wins, goals-against-average and save percentage.
"Hard-fought game. Kind of feeling each other out early, maybe a little bit loose, but I thought we got better as the game went along and we showed at the end the grit and the battle in our game. It’s great. The way that ended was perfect."
The Jets return to action Tuesday night when they host the Detroit Red Wings, who sit in the basement of the NHL standings and have lost 11 consecutive games. It's the start of a home-and-home, with the re-match going Thursday night in Motor City.
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.