NEWARK, N.J. — When a player with all-world skill starts getting some bounces, big things often follow. And, right now, there’s not a larger storyline in the NHL than the goal-scoring prowess of Patrik Laine.
On the same night that saw Taylor Hall’s 26-game point streak end, Laine scored yet another goal as the Winnipeg Jets downed Hall’s New Jersey Devils 3-2 in Newark on Thursday. Laine, who opened the scoring 4:12 into the contest, now has eight goals in his past four outings and 14 in his past 10 to give him 39 goals on the season, one shy of league leader Alex Ovechkin (who was just hitting the ice in Los Angeles with the Washington Capitals as Laine was skating off in Jersey).
Joel Armia and Nikolaj Ehlers also hit paydirt for the Jets, now winners of four straight and eight of their past 10.
As for the guy who just can’t stop burying, the act of putting a puck in the back of the net isn’t even necessarily cause for celebration anymore. Laine was very subdued following his strike versus the Devils and that seemed to accentuate confusion in the building about whether or not the puck actually entered the net after it ended up on the right-winger’s stick 10 feet from the crease at the end of a busted play.
When Laine didn’t react, it caused everyone else to internally ask, “Did he score there?”
The answer is the same as it’s been for about two weeks. Yeah, of course he did.
“I saw it went under [goalie Cory Schneider’s] pad, but I didn’t want to celly too hard,” said the sarcastic Finn. “It wasn’t a pretty goal.”
OK, so maybe it wasn’t his finest work, but it’s certainly no fluke that Laine is tearing up the league. Paul Stastny has been centring a line with Laine and Ehlers since landing in Winnipeg at the trade deadline and he’s been struck by how much of the former’s success is driven by things other than his all-world shot.
“He’s just smart,” Stastny said before the Jersey contest. “No one talks about that — I mean, you don’t have to when [he] has that many goals — finding ways to get open, knowing that sometimes he’s got to be [the first guy] on the forecheck, finding ways to strip the puck.
“He’s offensive-minded, but he doesn’t just sit there and make you do the work; he does a lot of work himself realizing the more time we have the puck, the more tired they’re going to be. His hockey IQ is something that doesn’t get talked about a lot yet.”
That may change if coach Paul Maurice continues to put Laine and fellow youngster Ehlers — who did yeoman’s work to score the game-winner halfway through the third period — out in tense moments where the Jets are protecting a lead, as he did in the dying minutes against the Devils.
“Those two guys have to play in those situations and they earned the right to be on at the end by the way they played in the third,” said Maurice, who guided his team to a victory without the services of top centre Mark Scheifele due to an upper-body injury sustained Tuesday night against the New York Rangers.
The beginning of the third, however, was all about the up-and-coming player charged with stopping pucks for Winnipeg. Connor Hellebuyck was sharp all night, but never more so than during a five-minute stretch to start the final frame when Jersey hammered 10 shots his way as part of the 43 it put on net overall.
“Tonight, I think it was pretty damn good goaltending,” said Maurice, when asked what allowed his team to uphold its reputation as one of the better lead-protecting outfits around. “He found some pucks in traffic; they threw a lot at the net.”
The win was Hellebuyck’s 35th of the season and nudged him past Kari Lehtonen for the highest total in Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise history.
“That’s a big milestone in my career,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy it and I’m going to continue on and keep pushing the pace.”
The 24-year-old’s contributions really are as big a factor as anything else when it comes to why this Jets team — which is now halfway through a six-game road trip — is not only poised to make the playoffs, but ready to take on all comers once there.
“I understand — why wouldn’t we talk about Patrik Laine and the season he’s having — but Connor Hellebuyck is kinda the other kid,” said Maurice, noting guys on the less-glamorous side of the puck get lost in the mix sometimes. “Connor went through some real growing pains last year and they were necessary. It’s great that he gets the payoff for the hard work he did this summer, he’s been very good for our team.”
Nice of the bench boss to make sure the goalie gets his due. But good luck trying to stop people from raving about that sniper.