The Winnipeg Jets couldn’t spoil Anaheim’s home-opener a week ago but stopped the Ducks from pooping on the party here Thursday night.
Absent two pillars of its foundation, the Jets wobbled early but steadily improved in their 2021-22 NHL regular-season home-opener, finally hitting the win column with a 5-1 victory over Anaheim in front of a crowd well short of a sellout.
Winnipeg is now 1-2-1 and can climb to .500 on Saturday when the Nashville Predators visit. The organization can only hope more than 13,886 of the Jets faithful head downtown for the 6 p.m. start against the Central Division rivals.
And it could be a tall order with the powerful Winnipeg Blue Bombers hosting the B.C. Lions across town at the exact same time
Earlier in the day, top-line centre Mark Scheifele was ruled out after testing positive for COVID-19, the same scenario as his longtime linemate, Blake Wheeler. Each is quarantining — Scheifele in Winnipeg and Wheeler in Minnesota.
Andrew Copp’s third goal of the season early in the second period was the game winner.
"I think we have room to get better, for sure. I think after giving up the first one our (penalty kill) stepped up," said Copp. "(Connor Hellebuyck) played well. I feel like a lot of their chances were from the outside. But with that said, I do think we have levels that we can get to, to get better. But a step in the right direction, winning a hockey game, playing a relatively full 60 minutes. Home opener, fans back in the building, happy with the win but there’s definitely ways we can get better."
The Jets had a two-goal lead for the third consecutive outing but managed to lock this one down. Hellebuyck, who has started all four contests, provided his finest performance in the crease, turning aside 38 drives from a spunky Anaheim squad.
"It seems like whenever he’s not the best goalie in the world for a few games, it takes just one game like that for him to get right back there. He was huge for us, he’s going to be huge for us," Copp said, of the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner. "We have all the confidence for him. I feel like usually one of those performances kick-starts a little bit of a run for him. We’re looking forward to seeing how he can take that and run with it for the next few games."
The Jets haven’t played in front of a raucous home barn since March 9, 2020 — 591 days ago — when they dumped the Arizona Coyotes 4-2. Two nights later, they knocked off the Oilers by the identical score in Edmonton. The next day, morning skates and practices were cancelled across the league after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Hockey-starved fans likely vacated the building as relieved as they were elated. A Monet masterpiece it was not.
Take your pick from a list of defects early on that might well have set the Jets back on many nights during a long NHL campaign. They had far too many giveaways in the neutral and defensive zones, and demonstrated neither an abrasive forecheck nor a productive cycle until the midway point of the game.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said his club gained momentum as the game wore on, and was deserving of the two points.
"Our third was our best period in terms of pace of our game," he said. "I don’t want to see Connor (Hellebuyck) seeing that many pucks every night, but he was sharp and on it. His rebound control was really good tonight. After giving up another shortie, I liked the way our kill went. We shot pucks on our power play, so that was all right."
Josh Morrissey’s laser beam from the point just 90 seconds into the final frame, with Anaheim blue-liner Josh Manson serving a tripping minor, beefed up the lead to 3-1.
A pair of late goals by Kyle Connor, one into an empty net and another with goalie John Gibson back between the pipes, bulged the goal differential. Inexplicably, hats rained down after the talented scorer ripped his second goal of the game and fifth of year.
Pay attention, folks.
"No, I’ve never seen that before," said Connor, one goal shy of the hat-trick. "The rumour was it was free-hat night, and they didn’t like ‘em so they were just throwing ’em."
Winnipeg generated just four shots through the opening 20 minutes. One hit pay dirt as Pierre-Luc Dubois redirected a pass from Connor behind Gibson at 4:10 to even the score 1-1. Evgeny Svechnikov, who received a big promotion with Scheifele and Wheeler sidelined, drew the second assist for his first point as a Jet.
Troy Terry had tipped a shot past Hellebuyck at 2:46 to open the scoring for the visitors, with veteran centre Paul Stastny in the penalty box — the eighth power-play goals yielded by Winnipeg in 18 shorthanded situations so far this season.
It’s become a coin toss on whether or not the PK gets the job done on any given chance.
Playing between Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers, Copp gave his club control early in the second period, chipping newcomer Nate Schmidt’s slap-pass behind Gibson. Schmidt later set up Morrissey’s second tally of the year.
Maurice was duly impressed with the effort of Copp up the middle, with Scheifele unavailable.
"I think Andrew does a real good job with some of the heavy lifting down low. He’s a very, very strong man and I think he can move the puck both sides," Maurice said. "I think (Stastny) can, too. The centre-icemen get more involved in the game, especially in our end.
"My concern coming in was you miss (Scheifele and Wheeler) up front and you’re coming off the road and we were going to spend some (defensive) zone coverage time. I think Andrew’s at 15 minutes through two periods but he can physically handle that."
Time to put an alert out on Ehlers, the routinely dynamic Dane who is still without a point through four contests. His offensive elements are in high demand right now, with key personnel relegated to the sidelines.
Not since early November 2019 has Ehlers gone four consecutive regular-season contests without a point.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).