Winnipeg Jets finding ways to win despite rebuilt blue line

Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers (27) celebrates a goal against the Dallas Stars. (Fred Greenslade/CP)

In a year when it would have been so easy to veer off course, the Winnipeg Jets are firmly on the one path that can take them to glory.

The Jets downed the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 on Sunday behind a game-winning goal from Mark Scheifele — the 400th point of his career — and more fantastic play from goalie Connor Hellebuyck. And after a summer that decimated its defence corps, you had to know Winnipeg’s only hope for success ran through its stable of quality forwards and a bounce-back performance in the crease.

Since it would be nearly impossible to confirm, let’s just go ahead and say Winnipeg must be the first team in league history to lose four of its top five defenceman from one season to the next. Dustin Byfuglien led the blue line in average ice time last year, followed by Jacob Trouba at No. 2, Tyler Myers at No. 4 and Ben Chiarot at No. 5. All — for one reason or another — are not with the Jets this year. In their absence, Winnipeg has leaned on the surprising Neal Pionk (now in his third NHL season after being acquired in the Trouba deal with the Rangers) and D-men it found on the waiver wire like Luca Sbisa and Carl Dahlstrom.

That’s your cue, Connor.

Hellebuyck has buried the memory of a so-so season last year by re-discovering — and, given the circumstances, probably improving on — the form that made him a Vezina runner-up in 2017-18. Not surprisingly, the Jets surrender heaps of high-danger scoring chances and Hellebuyck has been a monster while posting a .940 even-strength save percentage, the best mark in the NHL after Darcy Kuemper’s .943 among goalies who’ve seen 15 games of action.

Up front, the big boys have really come alive during the period since Nov. 1, when Winnipeg has put together a 12-3-2 mark after starting 6-7-0. Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are all basically producing at a point-per-game clip in that almost-20-game stretch, while captain Blake Wheeler — having moved to centre — has cranked it up the past couple weeks with 11 points in his past 10 outings. Nikolaj Ehlers is on pace for a career-best 35 goals and even got a little frisky in the face of Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf on Sunday.

And let’s get a good word in for the blue liners who remain, as Josh Morrissey — the only high-level holdover from last year — adapts to being a No. 1 guy on the fly, Pionk proves his worth as right-shot guy in a similar cerebral mold to Morrissey and Tucker Poolman establishes himself as a player worthy of significant NHL minutes.

They’re doing what they can on that blue line. It’s the goal-scorers and the lights-out goalie, though, who are driving this bus.

Other Weekend Takeaways

• Resilient as the Jets have been, pound for pound, the Colorado Avalanche might be turning in the most impressive season of any team in the league thus far.

The Avs won their sixth straight contest on Saturday, handing the Boston Bruins their first 60-minute home loss of the year in the process. The Avalanche have played long stretches without top-liners Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, both of whom are back in the fold now. Landeskog, in fact, netted an empty-netter against the Bruins and has two goals in two games since returning from lower-body issue. Rantanen, meanwhile, has registered points in three of the four games he’s played in the aftermath of an ankle injury.

Starter Philipp Grubauer — who missed a couple of weeks in November — was forced out of the win over Boston with a first-period injury, but Pavel Francouz came on and gave the team more of the stellar goaltending he’s provided all year. Centre Nazem Kadri has missed the past couple games with a lower-body injury, D-man Erik Johnson is waylaid long-term by an upper-body issue and the runaway rookie of the year, Cale Makar, left the Bruins game in the third period with an ailment (coach Jared Bednar will give updates on both Grubauer and Makar early this week).

Through it all, the Avalanche have the fourth-best points percentage in the league at .690.

• Are the Florida Panthers starting to see a little return on their $70-million investment? After going 6-4-4 with an .880 save percentage through his first 16 outings, Sergei Bobrovsky is 5-2-0 with a .918 mark in his past seven. The Russian started back-to-back games on the weekend, beating his old team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, on Saturday and downing the Sharks 24 hours later.

• Speaking of goaltending, Alexandar Georgiev made his third straight start for the New York Rangers on Sunday, as the Blueshirts blanked Vegas 5-0. While Georgiev has been extra busy because “King” Henrik Lundqvist has a minor ailment that’s forced him into the backup role, it’s still an intriguing development to see the Bulgarian-born 23-year-old go 3-1-0 in his past four with a .974 save percentage.

• It was a bit of a “Welcome Back” weekend as Phil Kessel returned to Pittsburgh as a member of the Arizona Coyotes on Friday and P.K. Subban played his first game in Nashville as a New Jersey Devil the next night.

Kessel won two Cups in four years with the Penguins and while the Predators didn’t quite climb to the top of the mountain during Subban’s tenure, he was a horse for Nashville during its run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (where, of course, the Predators lost to Kessel and the Penguins). That spring did wonders in elevating Nashville’s profile not only in its own market, but nationwide. It seems like it was always bound to be a good time, not a long time for both guys on their former clubs.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Edmonton Oilers (18-10-4) – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returned during Sunday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres after missing six outings with a hand injury.

2. Winnipeg Jets (18-10-2) – Pionk played a team-high 23:55 versus the Ducks. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff had clearly done their homework when they asked for this guy from New York.

3. Calgary Flames (15-12-4) – “Looch” comes alive! After going 0-for in his first 27, Milan Lucic scored for the second straight game during Saturday’s 4-3 win over Calgary-hating Drew Doughty and the Kings.

4. Vancouver Canucks (15-11-4) – Blowing sizable third-period leads has been an issue this season for the young Canucks, but they managed to pull out the 6-5 win on Friday versus Buffalo.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (14-13-4) – A big 5-2 road win over the defending-champion Blues had to feel good on Saturday, to say nothing of Auston Matthews potting two pucks after going five games without a goal.

6. Montreal Canadiens (13-11-6) – Max Domi has failed to score in 16 of his past 17 games. Then again, it sounds like Alex Galchenyuk — the guy Montreal traded for Domi 18 months ago — could soon be dealt for the second time since the Coyotes-Canadiens deal.

7. Ottawa Senators (12-17-1) – Brady Tkachuk drew himself a maximum fine for this cross-check on Scott Laughton during Saturday’s rough-and-tumble loss in Philadelphia.

In Your Ear

Taylor Hall trade rumours are going to be a hot topic until the former MVP actually gets dealt. We mused about possible landing spots on the latest episode of Tape-to-Tape.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

The Week Ahead

• The NHL Board of Governors are meeting this week in Pebble Beach, Calif., and the top item on the agenda will be wide-ranging discussion about how hockey moves forward in the wake of players speaking out about the way coaches have treated them in the past.

• It’s always fun when the Leafs swing through Western Canada. Toronto goes Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

• There’s a big-time Eastern Conference showdown slated for Wednesday, when the Bruins visit Washington.

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