ST. PAUL, Minn. — The youthful Winnipeg Jets are learning on the fly, and sometimes the trip gets bumpy.

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The youthful Winnipeg Jets are learning on the fly, and sometimes the trip gets bumpy.

Saturday night was a case in point.

The Jets surged to an early lead but couldn’t make it stick in a battle of wills against the Central Division rival Minnesota Wild. 

The Wild, playing its home opener before a raucous crowd of 19,024 at the Xcel Energy Center, staked the Jets to a 2-0 first-period advantage before roaring back to take the lead and posting a 4-3 victory. The score flattered the visitors, who were outshot 31-17 and only managed eight shots over the final 40 minutes.

 "You have to give them credit," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, whose club dropped to 1-1-0.

"I think they got a little bit quicker after the first period, and they made it a little bit tougher to regain possession in the offensive zone. There were times we had some chances in the (offensive) zone and just held onto it a little bit too long."

Nikolaj Ehlers, who lost his spot on Winnipeg’s top line to rookie sensation Patrik Laine, got the Jets off to a 1-0 lead at 18 minutes, 49 seconds of the first period. Ehlers leaped off the Winnipeg bench on a change and intercepted Wild blue-liner Jonas Brodin’s ill-advised outlet pass before rattling a blast in off the crossbar.

'You score three goals on the road, it's not like the world's caving in here' 

"(Drew Stafford) changed, and I kinda went on the ice and I saw the only guy who was open... so I took a chance and skated right there," he said. "It was a good pass."

Little more than a minute later, Wheeler made it 2-0 when he redirected Dustin Byfuglien’s shot from the point past Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Jets goaltender Michael Hutchinson, making his first start of the regular season, was crucial to Winnipeg’s early lead. He was razor-sharp in stopping Jason Pominville, Erik Haula and Charlie Coyle on Grade-A scoring chances in the first period.

He was lucky, too, such as when Mikael Granlund clanked a shot off the post during a Wild power play.

It was all downhill from there for the Jets.

The Wild closed the gap to 2-1 at 7:29 of the second with Chris Stewart getting credit for the goal, although it was Ehlers who inadvertently directed a rebound after Stewart’s original shot over the goal line.  

Matt Dumba, on a blast from the point on a Minnesota power play, and Eric Staal, also scored in the second period as the Wild surged into a 3-2 lead.

Brodin potted the eventual game-winner at 14:08 of the third period. His bad-angle shot through traffic eluded Hutchinson as he was screened by teammate Tyler Myers.

"Obviously, the fourth goal I’d like to have back — that’s on me," said Hutchinson. "As soon as I saw the D activating down, I took a glance over, and as I came back I got tied up (with) our guy skating in the slot.

"That’s on me. I have to battle around that. I have to find that (puck). It should be an easy glove save and an easy whistle." 

The Jets pulled Hutchinson for an extra attacker with two minutes left in regulation, and the move resulted in Mark Scheifele’s second goal of the season. Winnipeg also scored a 6-on-5 goal in Thursday’s 5-4 season-opening win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Wheeler, whose team plays host to the Boston Bruins Monday at 7 p.m. (TSN3, TSN1290), was not in the mood for doom and gloom.

"You score three goals on the road, it’s not like the world’s caving in here," he said. "You’d like to see more shots but, ultimately, three gives us a chance to win the game."

"They’re a good team," added Hutchinson. "They’re gonna get chances... They had a couple of pucks bounce their way and a couple of odd-man rushes, but that’s not usually our game."

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Minnesota was just too good on this night.

"They did a real nice job in their coverage, and we had a hard time moving past that," he said. "We didn’t have second and third touches on the puck, which is something we’re usually strong with...

"A good first period, and it turned quickly on us there," said Maurice. "Momentum in the building, the home team got skating, and we struggled with that."

Problem power play

The Jets went 0-for-3 on the power play and managed only two shots with the man advantage.

"We just gotta play the puck faster," said Ehlers.

"We’re (too) casual on the PP, and we learned a lot from last year. During pre-season, we were doing exactly what we wanted. We moved the puck fast, and we just gotta get back to that."

Laine’s magic

The Wild are well aware of what an offensive threat Winnipeg rookie winger Laine is.

Laine, who scored his first NHL goal in a critical situation Thursday, managed only one shot Saturday but finished the game plus-2 in 19:39 of ice time.

"You can’t give him an inch," said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau prior to the game. "He knows how to put the puck in the net, he’s a natural with that. Laine, you saw the shot he he had. I think he was rope-a-doping in training camp and pre-season, and now he’s ready to play... You just can’t let him shoot, he’s got a world-class shot."

Notes

After Saturday’s result, the Wild are now 14-0-2 in regular-season home openers... Minnesota players wore a No. 11 sticker on their helmets to honour the memory of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old Minnesota boy who was murdered in 1989. The case was only recently solved, and his killer will be sentenced later this month. No. 11 was Wetterling’s number in youth sports.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.