Despite long layoff, Jets' Comrie answers the call in win over Blues

Paul Stastny had a pair of goals and Eric Comrie stopped 28 of 29 shots as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the St. Louis Blues 4-1.

WINNIPEG - No starts since Dec. 10 and not a single second of NHL game action either.

No individual wins since Nov. 5, even if they only covered four appearances and three starts.

No problem.

In looking to see his team try and snap a frustrating six-game losing streak (0-4-2), Winnipeg Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry played a hunch and his gutsy call to put Eric Comrie between the pipes against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday afternoon turned into a tidy 4-1 victory.

Comrie certainly did his part, finishing with 28 saves -- including 14 during the third period -- as he improved to 4-2-1 on the season, raising his save percentage to .920 and lowering his goals-against average to 2.34.

Those are pretty impressive numbers for a guy who entered this season as a question mark when it came to whether or not he was ready to handle the Jets’ backup job behind Connor Hellebuyck.

This wasn’t a one-game referendum on Comrie’s readiness, but when you consider the circumstances of Saturday afternoon, it’s safe to say he left a positive impression in his first appearance since Lowry took over behind the bench.

Hellebuyck had started the previous 13 games, 22 of the past 23 and 34 of 40 overall, so it’s not like there has been much of an opportunity for Comrie to show what he can do.

Toss in a recent bout with COVID-19 and it would have been tough to find a comfortable scenario for Comrie to be thrust in.

Well, instead of looking for a safer landing spot -- relatively speaking, of course -- Lowry figured that there was no need to wait any longer.

Hellebuyck needed a breather and Comrie needed some action.

It would have been impossible to predict how Comrie would respond to the lengthy time between games, but when you consider his diligent preparation or how much extra work he puts in at the end of practises, perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that he was able to deliver the goods in such a critical spot.

During a week where the topic of identity -- and the search for it -- was at the root of many Jets discussions, it was Comrie who helped change the narrative by standing tall, despite the lengthy layoff.

“That’s a long stretch to go without playing. You usually see a guy get in there and he’s over excited to be in,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt, who scored a power-play goal and logged 24:38 of ice time. “He’s excited to get out on the plays, he might get himself out of position because he’s pushing so hard to get there. But I thought his patience, his angles were on, his plays in front of him, he wasn’t scrambling at pucks. Letting us do our job in front of him instead of trying to dive and scramble away. I think it calmed our guys down a lot when you see a goaltender playing that way and have that type of poise back there. Especially after not playing for a long time.”

Part of being able to help calm the Jets down, Comrie made a routine save off Jordan Kyrou, but when the puck caromed off the shin pad of Jets defenceman Neal Pionk and looked to be heading in, he recovered in time to prevent a goal.

The only shot to beat Comrie was a wrister on the power play from Vladimir Tarasenko and his ability to remain calm under pressure was readily apparent.

“Any time your backup wins a game, it feels great,” said Lowry. “We put him in the net and the expectation is he's going to do whatever he can do give us a chance to win. He's been extremely patient. Obviously, COVID played a factor in him not getting a couple starts.

“But today he played with a lot of poise. He was confident. The puck hit him. He wasn't busy, he was nice and quiet, and he didn't give up any rebounds because he just absorbed everything.”

Comrie fully realizes the situation he’s in, playing behind a workhorse like Hellebuyck.

Staying ready between those significant stretches between starts comes with the territory and with the Jets set to play the final 40 games over a span of 81 days following Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Comrie is going to need to play the way he did in order to help lighten the load.

Especially with seven sets of back-to-backs left on the regular season schedule.

Facing a Blues squad that is locked in a three-way battle for second place in the Central Division, the Jets were much more committed defensively (limiting the Blues to only two shots in goal in the second period) and found some offensive punch as well -- scoring four goals for the first time in the past 10 games.

“Obviously, it wasn't too fun losing those games. It’s frustrating,” said Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, who provided another determined effort, chipping in an assist and while also getting under the skin of the opponent on several occasions. “So, to win it helps but I think to win the right way, and to know that if we play like this ... it's easy to say, harder to do. There's going be ups and downs, but I think it's about building your game.

“You don't play the same way at the end of the year that you do at the start. And if you do, you're probably not in the playoffs. So, for us to come in here, against a good team, play the right way, I think it could be a really good thing for us.”

The Jets iced a lineup that included three defencemen who started the season with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League on Saturday, including Johnny Kovacevic and Declan Chisholm, who were each playing the second NHL game of their respective careers.

While the veteran trio of Schmidt, Pionk and Brenden Dillon led the way, Ville Heinola took an important step forward as he was given an enhanced role.

After shaking off some obvious rust earlier this week following two weeks and change between games when he returned to the Jets’ lineup against the Florida Panthers, Heinola played just under 19 minutes on Saturday and he did the things that will make him an impactful player at this level.

Heinola was assertive, defending aggressively and stepping up at the defensive blue line, working to tackle the element of his game that requires the most work.

Offensively, his gifts were on full display.

Aside from crisp puck movement and sound puck management, Heinola wasn’t afraid to use his skating ability to activate on the rush (ringing a shot off the post on a quality scoring chance) and he also unloaded a couple of dangerous shots that were stopped by Ville Husso.

Even with Josh Morrissey (expected to emerge from the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols in the next few days) and Dylan DeMelo (upper body injury) possible to suit up against the Flyers, Heinola has done enough over the past three games to earn at least one more look in what will be the Jets final game before the NHL All-Star break.

As for Schmidt, he seemed to be in the middle of everything, scoring a power-play goal on a one-timer and getting another play started that led to a goal, although he didn’t record an assist for it.

The eventual game-winner from Kyle Connor would not have been possible without a subtle but essential zone exit that featured an impressive pass by Schmidt.

With Blues defenceman Justin Faulk applying pressure on the forecheck, Schmidt secured inside position and the leverage he gained allowed him to keep the puck on his stick and he got it over to Connor as he was falling to the ice.

“It just seemed like a more complete game, that we weren’t chasing the game,” said Schmidt. “(We) let the game come to us. But we also imposed our will a lot of times during the game, which we haven’t done, I don’t think, for a sustained 10, 15, 20 minutes, maybe, but not for an entire game.”

The Jets hit the midway point of the NHL season with a record of 18-16-7 (43 points), which leaves them below the playoff line in the Western Conference standings and with multiple teams to try and leapfrog.

“I think that this team is what you saw (on Saturday),” said Schmidt. “I like to hold myself to a pretty high standard. I like to hold our guys there too. You look at what we did and I think that should be your standard. That should be your benchmark in the way you play.

“This is the time of year. The playoffs aren’t some distant fairy tale that you’re just going to arrive to and be amongst it. It starts with these games right there. In order to get yourself in position to where you want to be in a month, you need to get stretches together. Hopefully, this is the start of one.”

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