WINNIPEG — If you had any concerns about the level of engagement for Patrik Laine this season, you can throw those right out the window.
When Laine told reporters that he was focused solely on being a better player and not listening to any of the outside noise surrounding his future, he meant it.
He also backed up those heartfelt words with actions, producing two goals — including the overtime winner — and an assist as the Winnipeg Jets opened the season with a 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames on Thursday at Bell MTS Place.
“Hopefully I can just build off that game,” said Laine, whose second-effort shot came 78 seconds into the extra period. “There’s a lot of things we need to work on and the three points are not going to tell the true story of the game. Obviously, it’s a good start. You’ve got to produce, so that was good.”
If you had created a checklist of what a dominant game for Laine was going to look like, he basically ticked off all of the boxes.
Want to see his big-league shot on display?
Laine took care of that by accepting a perfect stretch pass from linemate Kyle Connor and roofing a bar-down shot in the first period over the glove of Jacob Markstrom in what was one of the few highlights during a lethargic opening period for the Jets.
Want to see if his passing ability is still there after racking up a career-best in assists last season?
Watch Laine thread the needle with a perfect cross-ice feed to Connor for a one-timer during a two-man advantage that tied the game 3-3.
Then after Connor was cross-checked in the back by Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin with 24.7 seconds to go in the second, Laine came to the aid of his linemate.
After a melee ensued, Laine was quick to find Flames resident agitator Matthew Tkachuk in the scrum and drop the gloves.
“That kind of play always looks dangerous. If you’re hitting one of our top guys like that, somebody needs to step up and it doesn’t matter who it is,” said Laine. “Teammates have to step up and now was my time and there’s been a bunch of guys who have stepped up for me. So just a normal situation.”
It may be a normal situation, but it’s not the act of someone who isn’t invested in his teammates.
“Yeah, I mean that's just the type of guy he is. He'll go to battle for his teammates and he's a pretty selfless guy,” said Connor, who finished with two points and was sporting a cut on his nose as a result of going head-first into the boards. “I think you can see that, obviously, tonight and I’ve got his back out there and vice versa. He's just an all-around great teammate, I would say.”
Laine figured he would toss in the overtime winner, just for good measure.
The Finnish forward is an essential piece of the puzzle for this Jets group and getting off to a start like that provides an immediate jolt of confidence.
“He knows that he’s worked hard here for two weeks. He’s worked harder here for two weeks than at any point in his time here,” said Maurice. “Then he gets just an incredible payoff. So now he’s feeling good. It’s all part of the development. You get bigger, stronger and you understand what a training camp is going to be like. You prepare for it.
“He’s a very driven young man. He wants to be great and sometimes, you have to learn how that unfolds. What he got tonight, he earned. He didn’t get lucky, he didn’t have a bunch of good bounces go for him or anything like that, he just worked and worked. For him to get down the ice in overtime the way that he did, that’s a fit guy. That’s a guy who has been pushing himself for two weeks after a good summer of training.”
Laine has the ability to be a game-breaker — and on Thursday night, he was.
“I mean, nothing surprises you with him. I'm probably his biggest, what's the opposite of a critic, a praiser or whatever,” said Jets centre Paul Stastny. “I've always loved his game. Always loved when he gets engaged. He's just such a physical specimen. You don't see it because he's just so smooth out there but he's just so strong on the puck.”
After spending a good chunk of training camp discussing the need to limit the number of high-danger scoring chances allowed, the Jets had some issues in the defensive zone during the first period as they gave up three goals.
The Jets were hemmed in and had some issues in coverage, plus the penalty kill sprung a leak (thanks to a brilliant pass from Elias Lindholm) and the result was a two-goal deficit after 20 minutes of play.
But instead of wilting under the glare of opening night, the Jets came up with a much more determined second period.
Mark Scheifele took advantage of a blind pass from Flames forward Milan Lucic that ended up on the stick of Nikolaj Ehlers in the slot and the Jets centre cleaned up the loose change in the opening minute.
The early marker seemed to help the Jets find their skating legs and as the period wore on, they were quicker to the puck and won a lot more battles.
The tide turned dramatically over the final 40 minutes and the Flames simply couldn’t get it back.
When the Jets had a two-man advantage during the second period, Maurice quickly called a timeout to rest his first unit — and then unveiled an interesting wrinkle.
Instead of having Neal Pionk at the top of the first unit, he sent out five forwards, with Stastny taking Pionk’s place and captain Blake Wheeler running things from the top.
That move paid dividends as Laine found Connor for the quick one-timer, setting the stage for the 3-on-3 overtime session.
There was some drama surrounding the availability of Ehlers after he landed on the COVID Protocol Related Absence list on Wednesday and missed the morning skate the following day.
Ehlers revealed after the game it was merely a sore throat and he simply took the necessary precautions in this new world the players are still adjusting to.
“If it wouldn’t have been these COVID times right now, I would have come to practice, I would have practised. But it’s a precaution,” said Ehlers. “I don’t want to come to the rink in case that it is COVID. I don’t want to spread it. So I had no problem staying at home. Those are the protocols. I want to be safe, I want my teammates and everyone that’s close to me here to be safe as well. I’m glad that there are these protocols. Obviously, you want to be out there on the ice, even for practice, you want to be around your team. But there’s a reason those protocols are there and they’re a big reason we’re allowed to play. It was fine with me. I ended up playing and I’m happy I was out there.”
Ehlers certainly wasn’t lacking energy, as his speed and creativity were on full display throughout the contest.
During his post-game interview, Ehlers joked that his biggest contribution may have been harassing Laine about when he was going to drop his gloves for his first fight.
“I’ve maybe been a little bit in his head in the last week, saying he hasn’t fought yet and when is it going to happen. I think he took that a little personal,” said Ehlers. “He stood up for his teammate. It fires the guys up. Patty’s a big boy, and he went in there today and showed that. It’s exciting, it gets the boys going, it always does. And he got himself buzzing, too. It’s exciting for us.
“He played a great game today. Not just the goals and the passes that he ended up making. He played a great overall game, and everybody saw that out there today. He was working hard, he was stepping up for (Connor). He worked his ass off. That’s pretty exciting. He loves to play hockey.”
Laine laughed off Ehlers’ suggestion, though he made it clear he was disappointed he didn’t get credit for a major after the second-period melee.
“He’s a pigeon. Don’t listen to that guy,” said Laine. “I was pissed off because that would have been a Gordie Howe hat trick. That one time when I drop my gloves I get a two-minute penalty so that’s kind of embarrassing. I’m not a guy who likes to fight much. I’d rather stay on the ice and help the team that way.”
To echo his comments on the first day of training camp, Laine is most definitely here — and in Game 1, he was a man on a mission.