‘It was just a matter of time’: On special night for Jets, Connor finds offensive game

Kyle Connor gave the Winnipeg Jets all the goals they needed, tallying a hat trick to lift them to a 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

About the only thing missing was the impromptu shoot-the-glove-out-of-the-air celebration.

And as it turns out, Winnipeg Jets sniper Kyle Connor had given some thought to pulling that memorable Teemu Selanne outpouring of emotion out of the archives before notching his third career hat trick.

If the hats raining down onto the ice at Canada Life Centre wasn’t enough to get the juices flowing, imagine the reaction if Connor had actually followed through with the glove toss during what became a 3-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday.

“Me and (Blake Wheeler) were talking about if whoever scores first is going to throw the glove up and do his celly. But I didn’t do it,” Connor told reporters. “But it’s cool to have them in the building. I know there was an extra buzz coming into it.”

That extra buzz Connor spoke of came from the Jets inducting two legends from the 1.0 franchise into the organization’s Hall of Fame, capped by a pre-game ceremony with Selanne and fellow Finn Teppo Numminen that brought the crowd to its feet.

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Connor went into the contest with only two goals (including an empty-netter in the season opener and an overtime winner on Nov. 3 against the Montreal Canadiens), but he’s back up to the point-per-game pace he established for himself in 2021-22 with 15 points in 15 games after Thursday’s offensive eruption.

One thing we’ve come to learn about Connor over the years is that he’s consistent in the way he carries himself, whether he’s riding a lengthy goal-scoring streak or the rare times when the points aren’t coming as easily.

Sure, there may have been the odd public display of disappointment, but he doesn’t get down on himself for long and simply trusts that his skill and ability, coupled with the work he puts in, will allow him to push through anything that’s thrown his way.

“My game wasn’t too far off,” Connor told reporters after Thursday’s victory that pushed the Jets to 10-4-1. “I put a little more emphasis on getting to the net, just being around more pucks there. Just put yourself in good situations, that’s all you can ask for. So, I wasn’t getting too frustrated.”

Jets centre Mark Scheifele has been taking some grief from his teammates for his obscure stat line that featured 10 goals and just two assists going into Thursday’s action, but he chipped in a pair of helpers — including a perfect pass on the game winner.

“I’d like to think that usually, I’m more of the assist man. This year, it’s kind of gone the other way,” Scheifele told reporters. “Kyle has been awesome. He’s made so many good plays. I’ve been lucky to be on the receiving end on a bunch of his really nice passes. It was nice to pay him back. He was fantastic. Obviously, nice to see him pop three.”

Jets head coach Rick Bowness has been consistent in his messaging when asked about Connor throughout the season and wasn’t the least bit surprised at how he put the slow goal-scoring start behind him.

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“We always keep track of danger zone scoring chances and he’s always been one of our best at getting scoring chances in that danger zone. It was just a matter of time,” Bowness told reporters.  “He had some really good looks early that didn’t go in, I think that first one gave him a big boost and you could see all of a sudden the stride picked up, the enthusiasm picked up a lot.

“A little bit of a weight off his shoulders. If he wasn’t getting those chances, we’d be having a different discussion. He’s never stopped getting those chances. He’s getting to the net a lot more, looking for those greasy goals. Listen, he’s got one of the best releases in the league, without a doubt. He’s one of the best skaters. Eventually it has to come and it came at the right time for us.”

Earlier in the day, Bowness told reporters the Jets were getting close to the point where a decision might need to be made on what to do next with dynamic winger Nikolaj Ehlers, who missed his 13th consecutive game on Thursday.

Ehlers skated on Wednesday, but there is still no timetable for a potential return and since the recovery is taking longer than expected for his undisclosed lower-body injury, Bowness conceded that it’s possible the Danish forward may require surgery.

“Nothing’s off the table with Nikolaj right now, let’s put it that way,” said Bowness. “We’re going to have to make a call here eventually, very soon here, (with) what we’re going to do with him.”

No matter what happens on the decision-making front with Ehlers, the Jets are already going to need to navigate a lengthy stretch without three Top-9 forwards when you include Mason Appleton (wrist surgery) and Morgan Barron (wrist surgery) who are also on IR.

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Could that mean that Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is going to enhance his efforts to the forward group?

Certainly, but he’s not going to go into panic buying mode either.

Thanks to the play of some of the guys Cheveldayoff brought in as free agents —like Sam Gagner and Saku Maenalanen or a waiver pickup like Axel Jonsson-Fjallby — the Jets have been able to overcome those long-term injuries to this point.

Navigating that in the Central Division over a longer stretch of time could be a challenge, but the Jets do have a surplus on defence and there are teams around the NHL that are looking to upgrade that position, several of whom could have a forward or two that would be of interest.

Finding the proper fit with the right financial situation is also imperative, though it’s important to note the Jets do have the ability and flexibility to add someone with term and a decent-sized contract, should they so desire.

But given where the organization is at in the development window, it’s too early to tell what type of player might be on the Jets wish list or if Cheveldayoff will wait until closer to the NHL trade deadline to accelerate the search.

In the meantime, those in the Jets lineup who are taking on larger roles are going to work at continuing to get the job done.

For Gagner, that means sliding up into a top-line role, a nice promotion for a guy who started the campaign on the fourth line.

“He’s just a smart guy. He’s always in the right spot,” said Scheifele. “He’s consistent. He’s got a good stick. He’s a great communicator. He talks to us all game. We played with him a number of games back. We had some great chemistry but weren’t able to get one. He’s been awesome with us. It’s obviously tough to see Appleton go (on IR), but (Gagner) has filled in really well and we’ve just got to keep building on that.”

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