ANAHEIM – The Winnipeg Jets certainly know how to make an exit.
In a game that looked to be out of reach, with the Jets trailing the Anaheim Ducks by a goal with just minutes remaining on the clock, Winnipeg scored twice in the span of 19 seconds to steal a 4-3 victory in front of 11,591 at the Honda Center Tuesday night.
Tied 2-2 with minutes remaining in the third period, Trevor Zegras put the home side up with a high wrist shot from the slot that beat Connor Hellebuyck glove side. That looked like it might be enough, only for Nikolaj Ehlers to even the score at 3-3 with his first of the season, then add a second for the eventual game winner with just 1:01 to play.
"When you don’t score, you try and find ways to score. I think that is part of my job, to contribute in that way," Ehlers said after the game. "But I don’t think I’d played bad in the games before that, it just wasn’t going in. I had a lot of good chances, a lot of shots, but tonight I just skated, man. I’m so gassed right now. And it feels amazing, obviously, to come back and win that game. I feel great."
Many wondered how the Jets might fare not having their most gifted scorer in Mark Scheifele and influential leader in Blake Wheeler, both of whom remain in the NHL's COVID-19 protocols after contracting the coronavirus during the team's season-opening, three-game road trip.
The answer: not bad at all.
Winnipeg notched a third straight victory on Tuesday after opening the season with three losses, including one in overtime. The Jets are now 3-2-1 heading into their second game of a three-game swing through California Thursday night against the L.A. Kings.
"Well, they're not using it as an excuse, that would be for sure. And then those are two really well-liked guys in the room, they're going to look forward to coming back," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said when asked if his club was finding motivation with Scheifele and Wheeler out.
"Then after that, it's more ice time (available). More excitement. I think they're having fun with it. I'm really proud of the way they’ve handled it."
With the loss, the Ducks dropped their fourth consecutive game after opening the year with wins in two of their first three. They sit at 2-4-1, and will wrap up a two-game homestand against the Buffalo Sabres Thursday, before travelling to Vegas the following night to battle the Golden Knights.
Anaheim got a good push out of the starting blocks, dictating the early parts of the game with effective defensive zone play an aggressive forecheck that stymied the Jets. Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins noted after the morning skate that it was imperative his club push early and not allow a more physical Jets club to find lanes they could exploit.
If not for some steady play by Connor Hellebuyck, who turned aside all 13 shots he faced in the opening frame and finished with 32 overall, Winnipeg could have easily found itself in an early hole.
"Obviously, most teams in the league are going to say they have the best goalie in the league, but I really do think we have the best goalie in the league, in the world," Ehlers said. "When he goes in and plays the way he did tonight, even when we gave up a lot of chances, that’s exciting for him, that’s exciting for us."
After killing off a Neal Pionk tripping penalty, the Jets would gain some momentum with a couple quality opportunities of their own on the man advantage, including chances in close by Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
The first period ended scoreless, with the Jets garnering just six shots on net.
The second frame played out much differently than the first, with a pair of goals by the five-minute mark.
This time it was the Jets who made their presence felt right away, resulting in a goal by Evgeny Svechnikov, his first of the season, at the 2:07 mark. Svechnikov, who was promoted to the top line with Dubois and Kyle Connor because of the absences of Scheifele and Wheeler, has played admirably on the right wing, with three points in as many games playing with the top line.
That lead wouldn't last long, though, as Sonny Milano evened the score with his first of the year in just his second game of the season. The goal was set up by Zegras, the ninth overall pick in 2019 NHL Draft, who had just one assist through the Ducks' first six games.
"We definitely didn’t play our best game by any means, but the hallmark of a good team is to be able to grind through those nights and find a way to win," Jets forward Andrew Copp said. "It definitely feels like we stole two points but it’s important for teams like us to gut through wins like this."
Both teams seemed to settle in after a quick goal-scoring surge in the second, swapping a few chances, none of which were overly threatening. That is, until a Riley Nash cross check sent the Ducks back to the power play.
Anaheim was able to set up and work the puck around, resulting in a number of one-timer shots that were cleared by Hellebuyck. The best chance belonged to Copp, who took full advantage of a fortuitous bounce off the referee following a Jets clearing attempt that sent him on a partial break.
John Gibson made the save and the puck turned back up ice, where the Ducks pinned the Jets in their own end before drawing a hooking penalty on Copp with just more than two minutes remaining in the second period.
But while the Ducks generated some more action in front, Hellebuyck continued to stand tall and the Jets penalty kill, which entered the game ranked 30 of 32 teams with a dismal 10-for-22 success rate, managed to make a third consecutive kill.
"I felt really good out the there," added Hellebuyck. "The guys were blocking a lot of shots and boxing out and allowing me to see pucks, and it makes a world of difference. Weird way to draw it up, but an NHL win is an NHL win."
Much like Winnipeg did in the second, Anaheim wasted little time taking the lead in the third period. Josh Manson fired a shot through traffic that found its way through several bodies and behind Hellebuyck to take a 2-1 lead 99 seconds in.
Not to be outdone, Copp put the Jets back on level playing ground, taking a pass from Statsny at the right side of the net before firing a shot high past Gibson at the 5:24 mark. Ehlers drew the assist, extending his point streak to two games after going pointless in four games to start the season.
That set up some major late-game heroics from the speedy Dane. Ehlers whistled his first goal over the shoulder of Gibson, then iced the game with a wraparound shot in the slot that banked off the skate of a Ducks defender.
"When you got a group of guys like that, that don’t quit when you’re not playing a great game and able to come back and get the two points, that’s exciting for this group," Ehlers said. "We’ve got to keep the momentum going, we gotta fix the things we didn’t do well. And go out and do that better next game."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.