Dillon reinforcing value to Jets both on and off ice during playoff chase

Eric Comrie had a 33-save night, Kyle Conner scored his 35th goal of the year, and the Winnipeg Jets defeated the New Jersey Devils 2-1.

NEWARK - Brenden Dillon had his fingerprints all over this one.

Never mind the first-rate finish on a two-on-one rush that featured a slick pass from Mark Scheifele just 3:22 into the contest, the Winnipeg Jets defenceman was a physical force, laying a number of glass-rattling hits, blocked a pair of shots and also moved the puck efficiently in a 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night at the Prudential Center.

Hours earlier, Dillon was sharing his thoughts about finding that important balance between knowing when to be assertive and take the body and when it might just be best to defend with your stick and ensure that you find yourself in the passing and shooting lanes.

“For me and my game specifically, I’ve had to just try to find a way every year to just add something to my game,” said Dillon, who is up to two goals and 18 points in 55 games this season. “There are so many different styles of games that teams play. As much as a lot of teams play similar in terms of their structure, you're not going to play Jack Hughes the same way that you’re going to play Leon Draisaitl. But they’re both fantastic players and both super offensive. But you’ve got to find different ways (to defend them).

“For a bigger guy, you want to use your size but you also want to use your feet. That’s something that’s really helped me. Understanding a time and the place to try and have a big hit or blow somebody up, as opposed to living to fight another day and having a good stick on a guy. Going through those situations and understanding there is still a time and a place that you need to be physical and hard on top-end players, but they can make you look pretty silly too.”

With the Jets clinging to hope in the Western Conference playoff race, the performance from Dillon was another example of why contenders would be scouting him closely and expressing interest in his services for the stretch run and beyond.

That’s not to say Dillon will find himself on the move again.

In fact, it’s efforts like Thursday’s that reinforce why the Jets traded for him in the first place and want to keep him in the fold - even though there’s a growing logjam on the back end, especially on the left side - where both Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are hoping to soon earn regular work.

For a Jets team that’s talked often about being tougher to play against, Dillon would be at the front of that line when it comes to the physical nature of his game.

But he’s not a one-trick pony either.

“He was physical. He was closing hard and that’s who he is,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry, whose squad improved to 26-22-10 after winning consecutive games for just the fourth time in 2022. “He’s a very good complementary player on our back end. I believe that he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do. He’s looked after teammates, he’s stepped up when he’s had to. He makes a good first pass and he defends hard.”

The qualities Dillon possesses become increasingly important when the games get tighter and the stakes begin to rise.

His 75 games of playoff experience - which include a trip to the Stanley Cup final with the San Jose Sharks in 2016 - only enhance what Dillon (who has two more seasons left on his deal and carries a cap hit of $3.9 million) brings to the table.

"Veteran presence. 700 games or something like that in the league. It's a lot of wisdom he brings to the locker room, so leadership, definitely, from that standpoint,” said Jets sniper Kyle Connor, whose 35th goal of the season proved to be the game-winner with 54 seconds to go in the second period. “Just the way he plays the game, he plays so hard. He's great on the (penalty) kill for us. He's tough to play against. He's always finishing his checks. Brings a lot of energy to the bench. He's been a real positive for us, for sure."

While the Jets are still in a steep uphill battle when it comes to the playoff chase - Thursday’s win allowed Winnipeg to move within five points of the Dallas Stars for the second wild card berth in the Western Conference - Dillon’s value stretches into what he contributes off the ice.

As a guy who was signed as an undrafted free agent coming out of junior hockey, Dillon has an appreciation for what he’s been able to achieve, though his journey also prevents him from allowing complacency to set in.

He’s also got an upbeat personality, which can come in handy when a team goes through a rough patch or several, like the Jets have endured this season.

“You always know what you’re going to get from him,” said Jets backup goalie Eric Comrie, who made 33 saves, won a fourth consecutive start and improved to 7-2-1 on the season. “He brings a great mood and a great energy and he’s a really special human being to have on this team.”

Speaking of Comrie, this was another sensational effort.

Although it’s always important to remember the sample size - this was his 10th start and 11th appearance in 58 games - Comrie’s resume-building project added another successful entry.

The only shot to beat him was a blistering one-timer from Hughes, which came on the power play.

Comrie once again provided a rock-solid effort, staying calm and composed between the pipes.

He made the routine saves look routine and added a few others that could end up on the highlight reel.

As for Connor, his seventh game-winning goal of the campaign was another beauty, an explosive dash to pull away from the defender and then another deft backhand deke that was so impressive that the referee closest to the play initially waved the goal off despite standing right beside the net.

Once Daws reached into the net to fish the puck out of the net, Connor could actually start his celebration for giving his team the lead during a period they struggled mightily and got stuck in the defensive zone a great deal.

“Obviously, I knew it went in. I was right there,” said Connor. “Just kind of looked back and the ref (was motioning no goal), so I was just kind of looking at him. I knew it went in. Just went through the (celebration) line after that.”

During the third period, the Jets got back on track and didn’t play a tentative style or sit back, dictating a good chunk of the play, thwarting the Devils' push to try and find the equalizer.

Connor was quick to point out there was plenty of room for improvement, but as his team gets set to continue this three-game road trip with a game on Friday against the New York Islanders, he fully recognizes the situation the Jets are in.

“We will take wins wherever they come from,” said Connor.

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