WINNIPEG — This was a turning of the tables the Winnipeg Jets would prefer to avoid.
There have been many nights over the past several seasons when the Jets leaned heavily on workhorse goalie Connor Hellebuyck to steal a game.
But as the curtain raised on the Jets 2021-22 season, it was John Gibson who was the showstopper for the Anaheim Ducks.
Gibson won the head-to-head showdown between the two men vying for the starting job for Team USA at the upcoming Olympics, finishing with 33 saves as the Jets dropped a 4-1 decision on Wednesday night at the Honda Center.
“He made some good saves, sure. But we’ve got some good shooters on our team,” Jets winger Kyle Connor told reporters in California after the game. “We just didn’t get the right looks. He made some great saves on the first power play but that’s never our mindset, ‘Oh, this guy’s on tonight.’ We’re still putting pucks [on the net] the same way. We’re not changing our game because of the goaltender.”
The Jets continue this three-game road trip on Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks.
It’s important to remember this is merely one of 82 games, but it’s fair to say the Jets have some sharpening up to do — especially when it comes to puck management and special teams.
While earning the first four power plays of the game, the Jets were able to generate plenty of quality scoring chances and build a significant edge in shots on goal (15-6).
But Gibson prevented the Jets from building any early momentum and kept his team in the game until they could find their skating legs, making several acrobatic saves.
That inability to deliver on the power play proved costly and it was only a matter of time before the calls began to even out and the Jets’ penalty kill was put to work.
“There were a lot of good things in that game for us. A lot to build off of and that’s what it’s all about at this time of the year,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who generated several Grade A scoring chances in the contest. “It’s Game 1 and you don’t make the playoffs or achieve anything. Obviously, you want to win but there were a lot of good things there for us and some things that we can clean up and do a little bit better at.”
Throughout training camp, the Jets talked about how the improvements to the defence corps could lead to spending less time in the D-zone and eventually help make life a little easier on Hellebuyck by limiting the shot volume and shot quality.
This first test was somewhat successful on that front, as the Jets allowed only 22 shots on goal and limited the number of high-danger scoring chances against.
Does that mean it could take some getting used to for Hellebuyck, who often thrives on being busy?
“I don’t think so. If it is, it’s a good adjustment for volume and just the wear and tear on the body,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “It’s one game. We’ll get into nights on back-to-backs and on travel that he’s going to get lots of action and lots of work. We gave up 12 even-strength shots and not a lot of attempts against us. He’ll get used to it.”
Special teams played a major role in the outcome, as the Jets’ power play finished the evening zero-for-five with the man-advantage, while the Ducks scored twice in five opportunities.
“You don’t want to see it getting static, where you’re not getting opportunities,” said Morrissey. “One of the good things to start with is shots and we had a lot of shots, especially on those early power plays. We had some good looks. They just didn’t go in for us.”
With Mark Scheifele sitting out the fourth and final game of his suspension for his hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans, another theme was prevalent.
As was the case in the qualifying round series of 2020 and the four-game sweep at the hands of those Canadiens, the Jets had trouble scoring without Scheifele in the lineup, with Connor delivering the lone goal for Winnipeg on Wednesday night.
With six of eight games out of the gate against Pacific Division opponents (with none against the Vegas Golden Knights or Edmonton Oilers), there was a belief the Jets might be able to take advantage of a soft schedule.
But as Maurice cautioned earlier this week, there are no free spots on the bingo card — especially in the early stages of the season after not seeing many opponents for an extended period of time.
Long before the puck was dropped in southern California, veteran forward Paul Stastny had a firm grasp on what his team was trying to do in starting to lay the groundwork on that all-important foundation.
“You’re just building something,” Stastny told reporters in Anaheim after the morning skate. “But every year you realize that what you did the year before or what you’ve done in the past doesn’t really matter. Everyone has expectations to make the playoffs, everyone has got hopes and aspirations to win the Cup.
“There are 20 teams that probably have a legit chance — not a legit chance but could win, with the goaltending, with the superstar players. The way the game is now, it’s so evenly spread out. So, you realize that all of that hype and all of that stuff you might have read over the summer, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is in the same boat right now and the work kind of begins and the excitement starts.”
And now that the first game is in the books, the Jets will turn their attention to fine-tuning.