ANAHEIM — File this one under rather unexpected developments: The Winnipeg Jets started off the new NHL season Wednesday night by getting beat at their own game.
At least, the kind of game we often saw them involved in over the past couple seasons. The one where they would be badly outplayed at times, spend oodles of time chasing the puck around their own end, get clobbered on the shot clock and the fancy stat spreadsheets, yet somehow escape with two points. Usually, it boiled down to one key reason: They had Connor Hellebuyck in net. And their opponent did not.
Well, the rebuilding Anaheim Ducks may not amount to much this year. But they do have their own marvellous American-born masked man in John Gibson, who will compete with Hellebuyck for playing time in Beijing this winter on the U.S. Olympic team. And Gibson, 28, put on a gold-medal performance Wednesday night, stopping 33 pucks as his team upset the Jets 4-1 at Honda Center.
"There were a lot of good things in that game for us," insisted Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. "A lot to build off of and that’s what it’s all about at this time of the year. It’s Game 1 and you don’t make the playoffs or achieve anything. Obviously, you want to win but there were a lot of good things there for us and some things that we can clean up and do a little bit better at. There’s a lot to build on there."
Make no mistake: Winnipeg has the deeper, more talented roster. And coach Paul Maurice believes they no longer have to play that rope-a-dope style of game, hanging on for dear life and hoping their netminder can steal victory from the jaws of defeat. On that front, mission accomplished through one night as the Jets carried the play for massive stretches. However — and there won’t be many nights we say this — they got out-goaltended. They got Hellebuycked.
At the midway mark of the opening frame, Winnipeg enjoyed an 11-1 advantage in shots. But they were trailing 1-0 on the scoreboard, as Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister somehow beat Hellebuyck, who had spent the first six minutes basically watching his team set up shop in the Ducks end with nothing to show for it. Perhaps he nodded off out of sheer boredom?
The hole got even deeper later in the period when 18-year-old Mason McTavish, the third-overall pick in the NHL draft this past summer, made his pro debut a memorable one by tipping a puck past Hellebuyck. The goal was initially waved off by officials, but a quick review righted the wrong.
Despite outshooting the Ducks 15-6 through 20 minutes, the Jets trailed 2-0 in the category that truly matters.
Winnipeg cut the deficit in half early in the second period when Kyle Connor blasted a one-timer that Gibson had zero chance on. Paul Stastny and Blake Wheeler got the assists, as the Jets’ tweaked top line came through. Stastny was playing in Mark Scheifele’s spot, as the team’s top centre was serving the last of his four-game suspension handed down last May.
But then another area that often saved the Jets the last couple years — special teams — came back to bite them. Big time.
Prior to the game, Jets coach Paul Maurice was asked by the Free Press if he felt the power play and penalty kill would play an even bigger role than usual in these early days, with the NHL instructing officials to crack down on various offences. The veteran bench boss agreed, adding he hoped his group could get off to a good start on both fronts.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t. Not even close, actually. The Jets went 0-for-5 on the power play, despite plenty of puck possession, good looks and shots. No doubt they missed Scheifele.
"Special teams can win or lose you a game, said Morrissey. "To not score one on the power play is frustrating. There were a lot of good things there. We worked all of our options and had some good looks. You’ve got to give Gibson some credit as well. He made some great saves on those power plays. Again, it’s something we can build off of and improve on."
Of greater concern is the penalty kill, which zapped any momentum Connor’s goal had built.
"Coming back after the room after that first, we liked that period, we liked our chances," said Connor. "I scored there, came back 2-1. I thought we were just stretching it a little bit too much, kind of not supporting our D and coming up as a unit. We kind of got discombobulated."
With Wheeler in the box for holding, Adam Henrique tipped a Cam Fowler shot past Hellebuyck to make it 3-1 with just under seven minutes left in the middle frame. And then, with the captain once again in the sin bin for the same infraction early in the third, Richard Rakell got his stick on a Jamie Drysdale shot for the dagger.
Two penalties. Two goals against. Game, set, match. Maurice said the penalty kill is going to be a work in progress early in this new year, especially with players such as Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis gone from last season. And it sure showed.
"Our penalty killing probably got what it deserved," said Maurice. "Five straight faceoff losses and it’s in the back of your net. You just can’t have that much time."
Anaheim scored three power-play goals in 26 home games last season. They nearly matched that performance in 60 minutes. Yikes.
Gibson clearly frustrated the Jets, who crashed his crease a few times as the game went on, leading to some rough stuff. At one point, Gibson wrapped Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois in an MMA-style bear hug, earning a roughing penalty to go with an earlier tripping infraction he took in hauling down Jansen Harkins.
Hey, when you are your team’s best penalty killer, I guess you can afford to rack up the minors. Although he’s clearly out of the running for the Lady Byng after one game. On a positive note, the Jets did kill off a silly late Stastny holding penalty clearly borne out of frustration, so at least they have something to build on in that department.
"He made some good saves, sure. But we’ve got some good shooters on our team. We just didn’t the right looks," said Connor. "He made some great saves on the first power play but that’s never our mindset, ‘Oh, this guy’s one tonight.’ We’re still putting pucks the same way. We’re not changing our game because of the goaltender."
Hellebuyck finished his night with just 18 saves on 22 shots. He, and his teammates, will look to rebound when the road trip continues Saturday night in San Jose.
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.