WINNIPEG — Just how quickly can a team shift gears from simply surviving to actually thriving?
Well, for the Winnipeg Jets, it was about as quick and seamless as a Nikolaj Ehlers zone entry.
Building on Tuesday’s comeback win, the Jets found out what it was like to play with a lead for the first time in this young season, scoring early and often in a 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday at Canadian Tire Centre.
After falling behind by two goals in the second period on Tuesday, the angst level within the Jets fan base was most definitely on the rise.
A 4-3 overtime victory to open a three-game mini-series with the Senators allowed the Jets a chance to take a deep breath and regroup.
On Thursday, the Jets found another gear and didn’t leave anything to chance.
The score could have been a lot more lopsided were it not for the play of Matt Murray, who received a mercy pull from Senators head coach D.J. Smith after two periods.
Thanks to a complete and connected effort, the Jets were able to push the subpar showing against the Toronto Maple Leafs from Monday a bit further into the rearview mirror, collecting four of six points to wrap up this three-game road swing as they improved to 3-1.
“Toronto was a terrible effort by our team, so I think that was a good learning experience. Kind of a reminder of how hard this league is and how hard you've got to play, night in and night out to give yourself a chance to win,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who scored a goal and is up to four points in four games. “We were just disconnected on the ice in Toronto, just kind of all over the place, and it wasn't good enough. It was a good response the last two nights. We really had to battle to make some headway.
“Ottawa plays really hard. They're a really hard, young, tenacious team. They're building an identity themselves. There are no freebies in our division and Ottawa's playing hard right now. So it was a good two wins for us.”
You had to look awfully hard to find any blemishes in Thursday’s performance, though Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was frustrated by his shutout bid being broken up when Nikita Zaitsev’s pass caromed in off the left skate of Chris Tierney with 2:57 to go in regulation time.
“It makes me really angry because I played almost a perfect game and then a guy shoots one wide and that’s what happens? I don’t really care how it goes in, I just don’t want it to go in. For me, I liked the team game and we got a win so I’ll be able to shake it off. It would have been nice to see a goose egg up there, though,” said Hellebuyck, who earned his 150th victory with the Jets, moving within two wins of Ondrej Pavelec for the franchise lead. “Yeah, it’s another one of those little proud moments. I thought about it after the game. I kind of checked on where I was in games and I didn’t realize I was close to a milestone for wins, so it just says a lot about the guys in front of me — the team as a whole — how long we’ve been together and building together and getting a lot of wins along the way.”
Here are five takeaways from the Jets' first road trip of the season:
Heinola quickly makes his mark
After emerging from his quarantine to make his much-anticipated season debut, defenceman Ville Heinola replaced Sami Niku in the Jets' lineup and his poise with the puck was immediately on display.
Whether it was leaving the puck for his defence partner on a smart, subtle reverse — or using his vision and skating to exit the zone, Heinola brought a sense of calm and maturity that is well beyond his (19) years.
You would have never guessed Heinola hadn’t participated in game action since helping Finland earn a bronze medal with a win over Russia at the world juniors in Edmonton.
Heinola took 22 shifts for 14:22 in ice time, had one shot on goal and one blocked shot while playing on the top pairing with Josh Morrissey.
“I’d seen where he felt he’s a little stronger, a little faster…he’s a little quicker this year. There’s not as much new for him, having run through our systems through a training camp and playing 10 games,” said coach Paul Maurice. “But boy, he makes a lot of little tiny inside plays to forwards. Our forwards did a real nice job of supporting him. At the same time, he made a lot of smart decisions with the puck. He’s got a skill. That passing skill he has is special. And he didn’t have to rely on physicality down low because we were out of the zone. He was really strong.”
Morrissey played his best game of the season and you could tell the two players were in tune right from their first shift out on the ice together.
“From Day 1 with Ville, you can see he’s a very smart player,” said Morrissey. “He’s not a big guy, like myself, but he’s a very smart player with the puck, he moves really well, makes a lot of little plays that you might not necessarily view as flashy but everyone on the ice appreciates them because they’re extremely difficult to execute and he’s able to do that. Just his confidence level as well. He came into the NHL as an 18-year-old, you don’t see that very often, and he played without fear in all those games he was in last season and obviously he was able to be really effective for us.
“Just naturally he looks a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, probably more confident and comfortable than he was just a year and a bit ago. From watching him at the world juniors, those are the same things I noticed, just a little more confident, a little bit older. You can tell he loves hockey and I’m excited to see him continue to grow into what’s going to be an amazing player in the NHL.”
Despite the lengthy stretch off the ice, you could tell Heinola already had close to 30 games under his belt this season between his Liiga action and time at the world juniors.
There was not much visible rust to shake off.
Heinola admitted his comfort level is higher and that he planned on leaning on his eight games of NHL experience he gained last fall.
“Biggest thing right now is I know all the guys, so I don’t have to be kind of nervous anymore around them,” said Heinola. “I can be myself more and try to enjoy the moment.”
Even with Dylan DeMelo set to return to the lineup Saturday night, Heinola did enough to earn an extended look.
Once he settles in, Heinola has the potential to quickly change the dynamic of this defence corps.
Morrissey settling in
Speaking of Morrissey, Maurice has declared the alternate captain “is back” and there’s a good reason for that.
“I don’t want to call it an off-year last year, but I don’t think he was overly pleased with his game,” said Maurice. “And he’s back, but he’s different now. He’s doing all the things, he’s playing a hard gap game, he’s got a great stick, he’s knocking a lot of plays down, but he’s also touching the puck on the power play so he’s getting a different piece of the game, too.
“He’s developing into that all-around defenceman that we had hoped when we drafted him and certainly saw in those shutdown years. But there’s more to his game than there’s ever been.”
Morrissey is averaging 25:16 per game and he’s being used in all situations — at even strength, running the first power play and even working on the penalty kill with Tucker Poolman on the NHL's COVID-19 list and DeMelo missing the first four games.
Morrissey has talked openly about the things he learned last season after enduring some challenges and made it clear he planned to play at a higher level.
During a Zoom call with reporters earlier this week, Morrissey once again demonstrated his leadership when asked about his tough start to Tuesday’s contest.
“I didn’t like my first period at all. I would be the first person to take that on my shoulders, I wasn’t very good,” said Morrissey. “You’re right, earlier on in my career, not even that long ago, I probably would have let it affect my game throughout the game and sort of tightened up and stopped trying to make plays and (then) it kind of snowballs.
“So, I felt like I was happy with the way I was able to respond and just kind of relax a little bit. I was a little bit antsy in the first period and I just felt I was able to relax and settle into my game and find a way to get the job done for my role within the team. Obviously, it felt really good to contribute on the tying goal and also in overtime. I’m looking to put together a more complete game, but I’m happy I was able to collect myself and just stay in the battle and get better as it went on.”
Lowry gets early reward
Jets centre Adam Lowry endured an injury plagued season that saw his production dip drastically in 2019-20, but he had a strong showing in the qualifying-round series against the Calgary Flames and hoped to build on that during this 56-game campaign.
As a pending unrestricted free agent, the timing of this hot start (scoring two goals during the past two games) couldn’t be better.
“It's a unique opportunity. With it being the last year my deal, it’s something kind of I haven't faced before, being an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year,” Lowry said earlier this month. “But that's one of those situations I try not to worry about too much. You come into every day putting your best foot forward and those things seem to take care of themselves.
“We’ve got a lot of superstars and a lot of great leaders on our team, so as long as you’re just trying to fit in with the guys and help out where you can, that's important. That's kind of what I'm trying to do.”
For all the talk about the skill sprinkled in the Jets top-six — and no doubt it’s warranted — finding secondary scoring is always pivotal.
And while Lowry knows that chipping in offensively represents that secondary part of his role, seeing an early payoff for that heavy lifting is never a bad thing.
“He’s the guy who gets different wingers all the time,” said Maurice. “There’s a guy who scored 15 in this league. We think it’s there. It’s the face-off goal the other night where he goes to the goal and gets a tip on it. Big man driving the net. Some of it’s confidence, some of it’s rhythm.
“With our injuries, he’s getting some power-play time, he’s getting the PK time, he’s playing a big minute game for us, so he’s in that rhythm, he feels good. He’s such a force out there going to the net. If we can get some pucks through and get them to the goalie’s pads, he’s going to have a big year.”
Animosity has arrived
Sure, it may have been a byproduct of the lopsided 4-0 score at the time, but when two teams meet in three consecutive games with the baseball-style schedule, there was sure to be some dislike brewing between them.
Naturally, Maurice didn’t mind one bit when a scrum broke out late Thursday in the third period and some bad blood bubbled to the surface.
With 10 meetings on the docket this season, these teams should be tired of seeing one another sooner rather than later.
“Yeah, I think that’s where it’s going at some point. The score has something to do with it,” said Maurice. “They’ve actually got a bunch of veteran guys that maybe remember a bit of an older-school style. When you get beat 4-0 at home and the other team was pretty good, you sent a message for that next game and that’s fine. It wasn’t old school like 10 guys with their gloves off, but it was a bit of a scrum and some name-calling and it will fire it up for next game.”
What about Laine?
Jets winger Patrik Laine missed a third consecutive game on Thursday and his status for Saturday remains doubtful, at best.
After a downright dominant performance in the Jets’ season opener, Laine came up with an upper-body injury during practice Sunday and he’s barely been on the ice since.
Although he’s still listed as day-to-day, the taxing nature of the schedule (the Jets are in a stretch of five games in seven days and six in nine) doesn’t leave much room for easing back into things.
Laine had some tests done Friday, but Maurice still doesn't expect him to be out long-term.
Speaking of injuries, Jets centre Nate Thompson left Thursday’s game with a lower-body injury.
“I don’t know how severe. I don’t think it is because he went in, got it looked at, came back out, didn’t love it, so we just were cautious with it,” said Maurice. “As they say, there was no mechanism of injury there. He didn’t take a hit. Something just tightened up on him there and he couldn't get it to get loose.”
Since Thompson was placed on injured reserve along with Laine on Friday, he will be out of action for at least seven days.
Laine’s arrival on IR is retroactive, so he can return to the roster as soon as he’s healthy.
“So, I mean if he came in tomorrow and he got on the morning skate and he was ripping pucks and he was feeling good, he'd be in the lineup that night,” said Maurice. “But we had more tests done today. There was nothing that we didn't think, nothing new came up with that, so he's still day-to-day.”
Maurice said Jansen Harkins will be used at centre Saturday against the Senators with Thompson not available and that left-winger Kristian Vesalainen will draw into the lineup to make his season debut.