© Geoff Brookes
The birth of a contender
Ken Hitchcock is always a candid and interesting interview. But his comment about the Jets before their game yesterday was surprisingly high praise for the Winnipeg Jets – that they were playing great hockey, like a “pack of wolves”.
If it was meant to portray his Dallas Stars as an underdog, to motivate his team, it didn’t seem to work out for them. The Jets dominated the first 15 minutes of the game, outshooting the Stars, and jumping out to a 3-0 lead. Dallas brought the game back to 3-1 on a late goal, off a face-off in the Jets end, but the overall impression from the first period was that the Jets were indeed a “pack of wolves”, controlling the play all over the ice.
The Jets worst period of the game last night was the second period – as usual. But even in the second period the Jets kept their composure, and played a road-style hockey game at home. They kept limiting the Stars chances, especially around the net. Nevertheless, Janmark scored on a nicely placed shot from just inside the Jets’ blue line, late in the second period.
But in the third period, the Jets played with the confidence of a contender. They skated, made tape to tape passes, and hit the Stars when the opportunity was there. There was a 10 minute stretch with no whistles, where the Jets frequently controlled the puck, even while making a line change. Dmitri Kulikov had his best game, and best period as a Jet, skating out of harm’s way time and time again.
This was not a game like Tuesday’s road game versus Minnesota. There were no “prevent defenses” last night. No withering barrage of opposition shots. No long shifts penned in their own end.
Instead, the Jets simply owned the puck. They didn’t panic, and they didn’t try to force plays that weren’t available to them. They patiently played their game, and kept the puck in the Dallas end for long stretches of the period, making smart passes and cycling the puck.
Finally, Mark Scheifele scored his second goal of the game, on a weird “sky-tip” on a shot from Morrissey at the point. Both Scheifele and the Dallas defenseman looked for the puck high in the air, as it appeared to fly straight up off Scheifele’s stick. Scheifele even waived his stick at it, high above his shoulders. Fortunately, he did not make contact with the puck. Instead, it fell straight down, and took a funky bounce right into the net. Scheifele later added an empty net goal to complete a hat trick, and salt away the win.
What is remarkable about this Jets team is that they seem to be adding more ingredients to their team chemistry with each new game they play. Last night we saw them respond when physically challenged. Instead of complaining to the referees (including another brutally-bad call disallowing a goal by Tanev), they just kept skating, passing, and cycling.
Both Lemieux and big “Buff” fought the other team, with convincing authority. Lemieux seemed to be under the Stars’ skin all game long, with his aggressive, energetic play. Stars’ goalie Ben Bishop got so agitated, he not only launched a solid goalie blocker to Lemieux’s face, but also pursued Lemieux towards the corner, looking to exact some revenge on him.
Whatever it was that annoyed Bishop, it all ended with coincidental minor penalties. Lemieux has avoided putting the opposition on the power play, so far. But his role as a pest seems to distract the opposition, and provide spirit to the Jets and the home crowd.
All three defense pairings looked solid. Tyler Myers scored a power-play goal. Buff played a solid game, and was physically involved.
The bottom 6 forwards did a good job creating scoring chances, even if they didn’t actually score. (Matthias had at least one more head-shaking miss, but kept getting the puck back on his stick, time after time). Scheifele had a first period power-play goal, after some slick passing left him wide open with the back door rifle shot. Patrick Laine scored a nice goal with his trademark quick release. Hellebuyck was solid yet again.
And a confident Winnipeg Jets team never looked rattled, at any time. They looked like…. a contender.