You would never know it by the drive downtown from the airport, but Winnipeg was transformed in the 15 years the city was without a National Hockey League team.
It must have been. Hard to believe, but Gotham on the Prairies was once a friendly place for the Vancouver Canucks to visit. The Canucks rolled through Winnipeg a couple of times in the playoffs in the early 1990s. They once scored eight goals in one playoff game at the old Winnipeg Arena.
In their last eight games in Winnipeg, the Canucks have scored five times. Total. Somehow, Vancouver hasn’t won any of those eight games with this offensive output.
The city has been a frigid hell for the Canucks since the Jets returned to Manitoba in 2011. On Tuesday, Connor Hellebuyck made 41 saves as the Jets won 4-0 for their 10th straight victory against the Canucks.
The difference in this game is that the Canucks actually played well enough to win, outshooting the Jets 41-25 and either hitting the post or missing the target on a bushel of other scoring chances.
Goals by Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and Blake Wheeler gave Winnipeg a 3-0 lead in the first 22 minutes before the Jets essentially handed the game to Hellebuyck and said: “Here, you take it.” Connor eventually scored another into an empty net.
Hellebuyck was brilliant. He was lucky, too, but brilliant as his 18th career shutout set a new franchise record and lifted the Jets into a tie with the Canucks in the Western Conference playoff race. Each team is 25-18-4.
Vancouver missed an opportunity to jump past the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes and move into first place in the Pacific Division. Three points separate second through ninth place in a conference where only the St. Louis Blues look secure in their chase of a playoff spot.
It might have been the Canucks’ best game of their road trip, which they finished 2-3. They play the Coyotes on Thursday. The Jets ended an 0-5-1 home losing streak – the Canucks can fix any problem in Winnipeg – that was their longest in four seasons. They finish a three-game homestand Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Some other not-so-deep thoughts on Tuesday’s game:
The Jets’ 26-year-old goaltender has schooled the Canucks. In his career, Hellebuyck is now 7-1 against Vancouver with a 95.3 save percentage and a 1.38 goals-against average.
The Jets nearly stopped playing in front of him in the third period. Hellebuyck’s strong saves included an early breakaway stop on J.T. Miller, a point-blank glove save on Adam Gaudette and a back-post pad save against Brock Boeser.
Amid the Canucks’ shot volume, a surefire indication of how much Winnipeg’s goaltender was in their heads, were the opportunities Vancouver either missed or passed up entirely.
Elias Pettersson missed an open net on an early rebound and then late in the third period bounced another rebound off the iron, which rang all night behind Hellebuyck like church bells on a Sunday. Bo Horvat misfired in close, then shot off the crossbar. And with the goalie on his belly and much of the net open, Miller didn’t even consider shooting before passing the puck back out to the high slot for Pettersson, who also didn’t shoot but slid a pass to Boeser. It was like the Canucks figured a conventional shot wasn’t going to beat Hellebuyck.
AND IN VANCOUVER’S GOAL…
Jacob Markstrom, who has looked in several games this season like Hellebuyck did on Tuesday, was beaten three times on 25 shots and was suspect on only one: a pass to the front of the net by Wheeler that slid through teammate Connor and under the screened Vancouver goalie at 1:12 of the second period.
Markstrom was definitely not the reason the Canucks lost, but the goaltending workload is starting to become curious for Vancouver. The Swede started eight straight games before Christmas when backup Thatcher Demko was mostly unavailable due to a concussion.
When the Canucks needed it most, Markstrom produced his best form of the season. But everyone, including coach Travis Green, knew that the goalie’s workload needed to be lightened, which is why there was widespread relief when Demko missed only two weeks and was ready to start after Christmas.
In nine games since then, Demko has started twice. Markstrom, who won twice in 27 hours on the weekend, started Tuesday for the fifth time in six games – and 15th time in 17 games. Looking more and more like they’ll actually stay in the playoff race until the end this season, the Canucks need Demko to play a little more so Markstrom can play a little less.
PP RISE AND FALL
Watching the Canucks’ power play is like riding a turbulent market on a good penny stock. No matter how much it is up since you bought it, you still sweat nervously each day it takes a plunge.
A Canuck power play that is one of the NHL’s best, and produced nearly as many goals in the first half of the season (40) as it did all of last year (43), is suddenly dipping. It went 0-for-4 on Tuesday and is on a 1-for-24 nosedive the last six games. The top unit looked so static early on that in the second period, after a television timeout, Green chose to begin a power play with the Adam Gaudette-Tanner Pearson-Tyler Myers second unit.
Pettersson said after the power play’s 1-for-8 performance in Sunday’s 4-1 win against the Minnesota Wild that the first unit needed to simplify things, move the puck quicker and get shots to the net. And Vancouver did generate 10 shots on its four power plays Tuesday. But the point of getting shots to the net is to generate rebounds and second and third chances when the goalie is scrambling. The Canucks got very few of those second-chance shots.
No matter what, the Canuck power play is a good investment. It’s going to finish way up on the season. But it is still capable of inducing ulcers when the team is losing.
For several years, a recurring gripe on the West Coast, just behind rain, the cost of gas and real estate and bike lanes, was that Chris Tanev didn’t get the attention he deserved around the NHL as one of the league’s most underrated defencemen.
But this season, is there a more underrated defenceman than Winnipeg’s Neal Pionk? Yes, Neal Pionk. Yes, undrafted college free agent whom the New York Rangers sent to the Jets (with a first-round draft pick) in the Jacob Trouba trade, Neal Pionk.
The 24-year-old’s power-play assist Tuesday was his 30th point of the season. That’s eight more than Trouba, whose $8-million-US salary makes Pionk a bargain at $3 million. A season ago, Pionk couldn’t have gotten near the right side of the Winnipeg defence, which was loaded with Dustin Byfuglien, Trouba and Myers. This season, he leads the Jets, who still have Josh Morrissey on the left side, in average ice time at 23:16 per game.