WINNIPEG — Kyle Connor was sitting calmly at a makeshift podium just outside the visitors dressing room and it didn’t take long to see he had no interest making this media session about him.
That’s not really his style and that wasn’t about to change for the Winnipeg Jets left-winger, not even after a virtuoso performance in his home state that was witnessed by plenty of supporters and admirers.
He needed only 25 words to answer a question about being named to participate in the NHL All-Star Game and, when asked about the emotion of playing his first game in Detroit since his father Joe passed away in August, Connor maintained his stoic exterior and provided a quick tribute without going into great detail.
“No more so than any other game this year. He’s been a pretty big part of my hockey career, my life, so I always love coming back here and playing here and seeing family and friends,” said Connor, who scored his 20th goal of the season into an empty net to seal a 3-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night. “I skate with a lot of those (Red Wings) guys in the summer, too, so it’s pretty competitive out there.”
Connor, who hails from Shelby Township, Michigan, played a massive role in the Jets securing a victory on a night he was named to suit up for the Central Division team at the NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas.
He finished with seven shots on goal, 10 shot attempts, played a critical role on the Jets penalty kill (which finished five-for-five), set up Andrew Copp for his second of two tallies (springing him for a partial break with a perfect pass) and led all forwards in the game with 21:29 of ice time.
For a guy with five consecutive seasons of scoring 20-plus goals at the NHL level — and three 30-plus goal seasons on his impressive resume — this announcement came as a surprise to absolutely no one.
Connor leads the Jets in scoring with 37 points in 34 games, he’s tops in power-play points with 10 (though only two of his 20 markers have come with the man-advantage) and he also leads the team in shots on goal (145).
He’s been an offensive force, while also working on improving his play away from the puck.
“He just keeps getting better,” said Copp, who hit double digits in goals for a fourth consecutive season. “You see him in the third (period) after playing (20) minutes and he still has the conditioning to keep pushing and can dominate the play.
“He just keeps elevating his game, he’s obviously a massive catalyst for us, leads our team in points, so really happy. He’s always been such a great player, but now that he’s kind of established himself as a go-to guy, maybe one of our most go-to guys, that he’s being rewarded for it. Obviously, he’s an elite player in the league and deserves to be an all-star.”
When it comes to Connor’s career trajectory, this latest achievement was merely a matter of when — not if.
“Kyle has been deserving of this for a while. He’s been an elite goal scorer in this league for a while,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who made 33 saves for his second shutout of the season and 26th of his career. “For him to get recognized, it’s almost about time.”
Connor has never really lacked confidence in his own ability, even if he isn’t one to seek the spotlight through self promotion.
But having the opportunity to share the ice — and the stage — with many of the league’s best and brightest could provide some benefits as the Jets prepare for a busy second half of the season.
“It just proves what we believe, that he’s a world-class player,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “This is well earned and a great accolade for KC.”
On a day where the Jets had eight players — goalie Eric Comrie, defencemen Brenden Dillon, Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Ville Heinola and forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, Paul Stastny and Kristian Reichel — and goalie coach Wade Flaherty unavailable due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols, they found a formula to put a one-sided loss to the Colorado Avalanche behind them.
There were major contributions from members of the core group and a determined effort from many of those who were put into expanded roles because of the notable absences.
That’s a testament to the organizational depth in the Jets’ system, plus a reflection of the job Mark Morrison is doing with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.
The Jets had five Moose regulars in the lineup, including defencemen Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm — who were making their NHL debuts — and forwards Cole Perfetti, CJ Suess and Austin Poganski, while goalie Mikhail Berdin was pressed into backup duty behind Hellebuyck.
The fact of the matter was that none of those callups looked out of place — or nervous, for that matter.
Samberg played just under 18 minutes (including nearly four minutes on the penalty kill) and was used mostly on a pairing with Neal Pionk, while Chisholm played nearly 14 minutes with Nate Schmidt and finished with four shots on goal (and nine shot attempts).
Perfetti was used primarily on the Jets' top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Connor and he finished with 14:10, which was the most ice time he’s earned in his four NHL games.
Poganski, a late addition to the lineup when he was summoned from the Moose one night after delivering a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win over the Milwaukee Admirals, started on the Jets' checking line and finished with more than 11 minutes of ice time.
In what easily could have been a game of survival, the Jets instead found a way to pull together and get the job done.
“I think it speaks to opportunity. This is a lot of guys’ opportunity and this is their window,” said Hellebuyck, who has made seven consecutive starts and is up to 28 in 34 games this season. “They’re performing. Everyone as a team stepped up. They played the right way.”
The Jets have a daunting four-game road trip against four of the best teams in the NHL on the horizon — which will complete a stretch of eight consecutive road games before returning home on Jan. 25 for a game that is going to be played without fans due to the current public health orders — so this was an important starting point.
For a group that is trying to work its way back above the playoff line in the Western Conference, the Jets have now won four of the past five games.
They powered through what had the makings of a potential Covid-19 crisis and preserved a shutout for Hellebuyck despite a lengthy stretch of shorthanded play late in the third period that ended up being a 6-on-3 disadvantage when the Jets had two guys in the penalty box and the Red Wings chose to pull their goalie in favour of an extra attacker.
“The resiliency of our group,” said Lowry, asked what impressed him most about his team, given what had transpired over the past two days. “I thought our penalty kill was outstanding, especially at the end. I thought our goaltending was outstanding. I really liked the energy that the young guys who came into the lineup brought. We challenged some of our top guys, we needed them to be our best players and they accepted the challenge.”