Unsung heroes shine as Jets flip script vs. Oilers in Game 1

Connor Hellebuyck stopped 32 shots and the Jets put up three goals in the third, beating the Oilers 4-1 in Game 1 of their series.

WINNIPEG — Paul Maurice stayed consistent in his messaging, telling anyone who would listen that the regular season series would mean absolutely nothing when the Stanley Cup playoffs began.

The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets wasn’t discounting the meaning of dropping six consecutive games to the Edmonton Oilers or losing the season series by a decisive 7-2 margin.

He wasn’t ignoring the fact that the Jets had lost six consecutive games to the Oilers and been outscored 21-7 in the process either.

The point Maurice was trying to make was that the Jets knew exactly how they needed to play in order to have success against Connor McDavid and company — even if they didn’t reach the necessary level nearly often enough in the nine prior meetings.

The one thing he was certain of was that the style of game was about to change when the puck dropped in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the North Division opener, the theory proved to be true, with a multitude of unlikely heroes — plus a massive performance from goalie Connor Hellebuyck — playing a big role in giving the Jets a 1-0 series lead after a 4-1 victory on Wednesday night in Edmonton.

Dominic Toninanto, who was limited to two NHL games and another three in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose this season, was inserted onto the fourth line and managed to score the game-winning goal on a nifty redirection after a point shot from Logan Stanley went in and out of the net quickly that it required a video review in Toronto to count.

“Uh, yeah. I thought it was initially in. I actually rose my stick right away but then the play kept going,” said Toninato, who was appearing in his fourth career Stanley Cup playoff game after suiting up in three with the Florida Panthers last August. “I was like, ‘Oh no, now I’m going to look kind of dumb.’ And then, luckily I got back to the bench and the guys said it was in so it was a good feeling.”

Although the play went on, the buzzer sounded shortly thereafter and the puzzled looks turned to celebration and eventually elation.

“I couldn’t really see the initial shot. I knew Dom got his stick on it. The sound that it made sounded like the post,” said Stanley, who survived a three-player platoon with Jordie Benn and Ville Heinola to earn his spot in the Game 1 lineup. “I kind of was in the corner and the buzzer went. I thought there was a scrum by our bench and as I got closer the guys were celebrating so I threw my arms up in the air and gave Dom a big hug.”

Toninato dealt with a serious bout of COVID-19 in November and was eventually placed on long-term injury reserve.

Although he never got to the point of wondering if his opportunity might ever come, Toninato did deal with some uncertainty as he waited to have his number called.

“Obviously getting in on the last two games was huge. I was just hoping to get another opportunity in the playoffs,” said Toninato. “I had COVID back in November. You have to pass tests to be able to get back on the ice. Did some tests when I got back up here. They thought they found something that wasn’t good, so I had to sit out a bit. Turns out it wasn’t what we initially thought it was so I was able to get back a lot sooner.

“I don’t think doubt was getting in there. A couple other emotions, but you’ve got to make the most of every situation. I was just enjoying coming to the rink every day and being with the guys and just working on my game. Happy to get the opportunity now.”

When Toninato was inserted into the lineup late in the regular season, Maurice was quick to dismiss the notion it was simply a carrot supplied for working hard all season on the taxi squad.

Maurice felt Toninato had the skill set and hockey intelligence that would translate to the playoffs and in Game 1, that hunch proved correct.

The Jets played the series opener with forwards Nikolaj Ehlers (suspected shoulder) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (undisclosed after taking a puck in the helmet), which meant their depth was immediately tested.

But in the spirit of the season, it was defenceman Tucker Poolman who got the Jets on the board after Jesse Puljujaravi opened the scoring for the Oilers.

Poolman, who missed the final two games of the regular season with an injury, joined the rush after taking the puck in the neutral zone, supplying a clean zone entry and a textbook net drive before burying a rebound in tight.

Poolman, who dealt with his own bout of COVID-19 back in January, had not scored since March 9, 2020, a span of 40 regular season games and four more in the bubble last August.

So how exactly do two Jets players that hadn’t scored a single NHL goal this season rise to the occasion in the series opener?

“It’s really, really consistent with playoff hockey. We’ve just seen that so many times,” said Maurice. “The skill in some ways cancels itself out and it’s the grit and grind guys who go to the net, put a puck to the net, stand in front of the net, it’s their game all year long and playoff hockey gets to become like their game and they’re good at it.”

The contributions from the unsung heroes didn’t end there, as fourth-line centre Nate Thompson chipped in a pair of assists before Kyle Connor and Jets captain Blake Wheeler added empty-net goals to put the game on ice.

This win wouldn’t have been possible for the Jets without Hellebuyck, who finished with 32 saves, including 15 in the second period when the Oilers held a decisive edge in terms of the flow of play but ended up in a 1-1 tie.

Having Hellebuyck outplay Oilers Mike Smith (and for the Jets to beat him for the first time in six appearances this season) was exactly what the Jets needed, especially given the players missing up front.

“Our confidence is directly tied to him,” Wheeler said of the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. “I mean, the way he carries himself gives us confidence every single night and we know that goaltending means a lot this time of year and we have, we believe is the best goaltender in the league so that gives us a ton of confidence. It’s his birthday, he’s getting a little bit older, so you guys are going to have to start bugging him about his age. But great game for Connor and from our standpoint we’re just trying to give him vision of the puck and let him see the puck and he’s a pretty good goalie when he can see it.”

Although the Jets are not considered to be an overly rugged team, they knew they would need to play a physical brand of hockey to try and help deter the Oilers from getting to their speed game and using that in transition — where they are incredibly dangerous.

“I think we have a fairly physical team. There are guys where that’s a big part of what they do. Certainly the (Adam) Lowry line and (Thompson’s) line, those guys are two heavy lines and they did a great job getting on the body and just trying to finish everything,” said Wheeler. “There’s a big difference between being physical and going out of your way and running around because then, especially against a team like Edmonton with so much talent over there, if you’re running around trying to hit everything that moves they’ll make two passes and all of a sudden it’s in the back of your net and I think sometimes we got caught up doing that in the regular season and they were able to just dice us apart. We hit at the right times and it’s an important part of our game.”

The other major storyline going into the contest surrounded McDavid, who delivered nine consecutive multi-point games and recorded 22 points in nine meetings.

As annoying as the subject might be for the Jets to discuss ad nauseam, the only way to quiet the narrative was to find a way to contain McDavid, who produced 105 points in 56 games.

For the first time in 10 meetings, the Jets were able to do just that.

Although McDavid had a couple of dangerous bursts of speed, he was held without a shot through 40 minutes of play, finished with two in the contest and did not record a point.

“That’s what you expect come playoffs. Can’t make it easy for them,” said Hellebuyck. “We know they are going to come with some fire next game, we need to come prepared for that.”

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