WINNIPEG -- When it comes to building this foundation, the Winnipeg Jets are going to need to spend a bit more time tightening the screws.
Becoming a more defensively-conscious and detail-oriented team was never going to be an overnight process for this group, but Tuesday’s rousing comeback from a two-goal deficit could represent an important step in that process.
No, this wasn’t a defensive clinic by any stretch of the imagination, but the Jets stuck with it after falling behind 3-1, scored with the goalie on the bench in favour of an extra attacker with 77 seconds left to play and then earned the bonus point when Andrew Copp sent Nikolaj Ehlers in all alone on Matt Murray during the three-on-three session.
Instead of having to listen to the outside noise that comes with a two-game losing streak even if the season is just three games old, the Jets earned a 4-3 overtime triumph over the Ottawa Senators and quickly changed the tone of the narrative.
“That’s the most important piece for any team, that the score on the clock doesn’t dictate your effort level, your compete level. Maybe more important than all of it is your belief,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “That’s the foundation that’s most important to our team -- build that belief that the next shift can be better, the next game can be better... that you’re always giving yourself a chance to win.
“Those comeback wins, the late comeback wins, have a really nice impact on your team, right? You carry those for a number of games, you always feel that you have a chance.”
The Jets and Senators meet again on Thursday at Canadian Tire Centre as Winnipeg wraps up a three-game swing and the two clubs play for the second time in this three-game mini-series.
Somewhat surprisingly, given his speed and skill set, it was the first overtime winner of Ehlers’ career.
Or was it?
Not so fast, says Ehlers, dipping into his memory bank while tossing in a side order of humour for good measure.
“My first year here, an own goal against Colorado,” Ehlers deadpanned during the post-game Zoom session.
Putting one into the proper net instead of sneaking an intended pass past an unsuspecting Michael Hutchinson back on Nov. 12 of 2016 brought a smile to Ehlers’ face.
“Personally, it’s obviously very nice to not just get one in OT but get the first of the year,” said Ehlers. “The team, we battled our asses off to stay in the game and get a chance to get the tying goal.”
Even one point was far from a certainty for the Jets after giving up a pair of power-play goals (one from Josh Norris, his first NHL marker, and another from Alex Galchenyuk) and an even-strength redirection from Chris Tierney before the game was 32 minutes old.
To that point, Adam Lowry had the lone marker for the Jets and his line with Mason Appleton and Copp was one of the only groups generating much offensive-zone time or pressure.
But Maurice got out the blender for the second time in as many nights -- and this shake-up got the desired result.
After reuniting Kyle Connor on the top line with frequent linemates Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, the Jets produced an offensive spark.
“That’s our safe place,” said Maurice.
Thanks to a power-play marker from Connor (which was set up brilliantly by Wheeler), the Jets made it a one-goal game going into the second intermission.
Connor is up to three goals in three games -- and he could easily be at five (or more), given the looks he’s had.
“He hasn’t had a lot go for him around the net,” said Maurice. “With the chances he’s generated or getting, he could have twice (as many goals of) what he has. Kyle is scratching the surface here. He hasn’t been lucky here in his start and he’s putting up great numbers.”
Then with the goalie on the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Josh Morrissey ripped a shot from the point through a double screen and it was tipped in by Wheeler with 1:17 left in regulation.
That set the stage for Ehlers’ heroics.
“He can be so dangerous, such a dynamic player late in a game,” said Maurice. “Just the speed to get into that hole and make the play that finishes it. We need him. We need him to feel confident and healthy and strong -- and when he is, he’s so very dynamic.”
The most stable part of the foundation for the Jets to this point has been goaltending -- and that should not come as much of a surprise, given that the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is on the roster.
After giving up three goals in the opening period against the Calgary Flames, Connor Hellebuyck has been brilliant over the next five periods and change, allowing only two markers in the next 50 shots that he faced.
Were it not for the brilliant play of Hellebuyck during the second period on Monday against the Maple Leafs, the Jets would have been blown out instead of having a chance in a game they really had no business being in.
Jets backup Laurent Brososit held up his end of the bargain on Tuesday, turning aside 16 of 18 shots on goal in the first period and finishing with 38 saves against the Senators.
Last season was a challenging one for Brossoit, but this performance was one he can build on.
Sometimes, all a backup needs to do is give his team a chance to win.
In others, stealing the game is required.
This one probably falls somewhere in the middle of those two categories.
“Very hard worker, very dedicated. He’s a guy that’s always prepared, that’s the best way to describe (Brossoit),” said Wheeler. “When his number gets called, you know you’re going to get a great performance from him because he just works so hard in between starts. He prepares his body and his mind, and I just think he’s always ready.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a goalie with (Hellebuyck) that can man a pretty great and strenuous workload, but even more fortunate -- especially in a season like this -- to have a guy like (Brossoit) ready to step up when his number’s called, when he might not get as many starts as he’s capable of handling.”
Entering the busiest stretch of the season, with six games over the span of nine nights, the Jets weren’t icing an optimal lineup -- not with defencemen Dylan DeMelo (birth of his child) and Tucker Poolman (COVID Protocol Related Absence) back home in Winnipeg and forward Patrik Laine sidelined after suffering an upper-body injury that has him officially listed as day-to-day.
That’s a reason, not an excuse for the loose coverage and slow pace that was evident in the Jets’ play during a 3-1 defeat to the Maple Leafs on Monday.
After another slow start, it would have been easy for things to go sideways for the Jets on Tuesday.
Rather than get bogged down and frustrated, the Jets dug in and found a way to elevate their collective level of play.
“We were a way better team tonight,” said Wheeler. “Score wasn’t quite indicative of that, but we watched some video (Tuesday) morning, it wasn’t the way we want to play the game. It didn’t really fit into the type of culture we’ve established here in Winnipeg. Staying connected on the ice, helping each other out, giving each other easy outs, just those little things that make the game easier for everyone. We were much better in that area tonight, I think we felt good about where we stood in the game, kept clawing our way back and got some big plays at key times.”
One of the oddities for the Jets so far is that despite holding a record of 2-1, they haven’t actually played a single second of hockey with the lead.
Yet, thanks to a pair of comebacks that required overtime, the Jets have been able to bank four of a possible six points.
Chasing the game is not a recipe for success that can be sustained, though having the ability to rally is something the Jets will certainly look to build on as they continue the process of trying to build a stable foundation.
“We have some things we can work on,” said Ehlers. “We haven’t had the best starts to our games, obviously, that’s something we’re trying to change.
“But it shows that we don’t give up. If you’ve watched the games, you can see that. We find ways and we work hard to stay in the game and give ourselves a chance to get that tying goal and get ourselves some points.”