Offence from defence: Jets blue-liners continue to shine in win over Flames

Connor Hellebuyck made 33 saves and Sam Gagner's tip with 5:40 left in the third period was the game winner was the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Calgary Flames 3-2.

WINNIPEG — It turns out the whole ‘our D are coming’ idea from Rick Bowness on the opening day of training camp was more than just a snazzy slogan that would look good on a bumper sticker or a T-shirt.

The concept the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets proposed to his new team in general and his new defence corps in particular was on full display on Tuesday in a 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames.

Goals from Brenden Dillon and Josh Morrissey moved the Jets to 20 goals from the back end so far, leaving them just four off the final total from last season — with 44 games left in the regular season.

For good measure, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg drew assists on the game-winner, which was perfectly redirected by Sam Gagner, extending the Jets’ winning streak to three games as they improved to 24-13-1 on the season.

That meant the defence corps got an offensive contribution from each of the three pairings.

“We’re simplifying it. It’s just getting pucks there,” said Dillon.

“Josh (Morrissey), of course, has made some highlight-reel ones and those are obviously fantastic, but I think a lot for the most part are getting there. Our forwards are doing a better job trusting us to get that puck to the net, and therefore they’re going there and getting rebounds and tips and, of course, when we’re able to get them to cross the goal line we’re super happy, but we’re just happy to get the goals in general.”

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Morrissey’s season has gotten plenty of attention and this latest contribution was a thing of beauty. He accepted a pass at the left point from Pierre-Luc Dubois, passed the puck over the sticks of a pair of Flames forwards applying pressure and onto the tape of Kyle Connor before following the play to the slot, where he ripped home a shot after Connor decided to get the puck back to him on the give-and-go.

Dillon’s goal was his first of the season and came with him in relatively unfamiliar territory, providing a screen in front on a seeing-eye shot from Dylan DeMelo.

“Pants, yeah. Big butt,” Dillon quipped when asked what part of his body the shot caromed in off, then he explained why he didn’t retreat to the point after making a play along the wall. “I mean, our angles were a little off there from the normal blue line, side to side. I mean, we just kind of made an O-zone play. (Mark Scheifele) was covering high, I dropped it off to him and knew that he was covering for me so I felt free to go to the net and, again, just a great shot by (DeMelo). Pucks and bodies were going there and I was happy to have it go in.”

Pucks and bodies were also going to the net on Gagner’s goal, the result of a crisp pass from Samberg that was one-timed by Heinola, who has put together a nice stretch of games during this most recent recall.

“We put a lot of focus in training camp on getting our D a lot more involved,” said Bowness. “The way the league is played today — and you saw a perfect example of it (Tuesday) — there are five guys around the net and it’s tough to make cute little plays in there. It really is. The only way to get them to move is to get the puck back to your defence, then someone has to come out a little bit, which opens up a little space around the net. In saying that, you have to have someone at the net to tip it, to get a screen, to get a rebound, whatever it is.

“It’s a buy-in from the players that we’ve had from day one. The focus has been our defence have to get more involved with on the rush, and our forwards have to use them more to spread out the defence around the net. They don’t always go in like that. But regardless of whether they go in or not, a shot will create a scramble. It’s tough to generate a lot of low plays unless you get your defence involved. Then, again, you have to have a net presence.”

Having the D-men more active in the offence isn’t something that’s just fun for the blue-liners.

“Absolutely. It allows you to establish more O-zone time, create more opportunities,” said Gagner. “I think you look at the way the league is going now, teams back pressure so well. If you can have your D in the rush it just creates a second wave for you. Even if it doesn’t work on the rush, you’re playing aggressive and you’re establishing zone time. That’s huge for us and we have to keep that going.”

With the Jets expected to have Nate Schmidt back on the blue line and possibly have Cole Perfetti and maybe even Nikolaj Ehlers return to the lineup as early as Friday or before the end of the weekend, a move or two will need to be made to clear room on the roster.

Forward Jansen Harkins cleared waivers on Tuesday and is a logical candidate to be reassigned to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, but other decisions are on the horizon. It will be interesting to see if the Jets go down the path of least resistance and demote someone who doesn’t require waivers or if they expose someone else and risk that player (or two) being claimed.

When the hypothetical of sending Heinola to the Moose was broached during his post-game availability, Bowness wasn’t ready to commit to that being the direction the organization was leaning.

He also praised Heinola for playing the way the Jets need him to play. Not only did he get involved offensively, his defensive work was sound and his decision making is becoming more instinctual.

The Jets don’t play again until Friday when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning, so they’ll have some time to formulate a plan.

Dillon has been paired with Heinola a fair amount during this stretch and is seeing progress.

“Ville’s been great. For him, (it’s) just kind of getting that confidence to do what he does best,” said Dillon. “He creates plays. He’s one of those slippery, creative defencemen. Kind of that new wave that can create offence from the back end.

“For him and I, we’ve got good chemistry. A good combo. I can try to open up some space for him and let him do his thing, get him the puck, and obviously, first and foremost we’ve got to take care of the D-zone. I’m really happy for him to be getting better and better every game.”

Speaking of seemingly getting better and better every game, Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck had another top-notch showing, finishing with 33 saves as he earned his 19th victory in his 29th start in 38 games this season.

“Yeah, I mean, what more can we say? It’s almost like we just expect him to be almost exceptional every night,” said Dillon. “We’re really lucky here with the Jets to have him. The two-on-one and the power play, that’s a game-momentum changer. He’s had a few that, just… He picks up our bench when we need a save or a turning point like that, and for us to be able to get some run support for him it feels nice to reward him after how well he’s been playing.”

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