The Winnipeg Jets beat the second-best team in the National Hockey League on Thursday night.
And they did it without Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry, Josh Morrissey and for most of the game, Patrik Laine. They not only beat Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, they shut them out. Connor Hellebuyck made 34 saves, played brilliantly from the opening face-off and shut down a team that came in with a league-high (T) 39 wins and was No. 3 in goals scored with 222. It was Hellebuyck’s fifth shutout of the season.
“They played hard and they played fast,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Boy, Connor Hellebuyck was so good, tonight. For me, our team has been like this all year. The group is more powerful than the individual.”
It was, in a word, incredible. In back-to-back games against Washington this week, the Jets picked up three points against the powerhouse Caps, allowing three goals by the 13:25 mark of Game 1 and then nothing after that. Sure the Caps won a shootout in the opening game in Washington, but in regulation time, the Jets outscored the “unbeatable” Caps 6-3.
And they did won those two games with a defence led by Dmitry Kulikov, Neal Pionk and Nathan Beaulieu; with both of their goaltenders; and in Game 2, after Laine got hit on the lower leg with a slapshot just 23 seconds into the first period (his first shift), they did it without a guy who has 26 goals and 59 points (after the game Maurice said Laine had not broken any bones and would accompany the team to Edmonton for Saturday night’s game).
To think what the Jets have accomplished this season after a heart-breaking off-season that cost them Dustin Byfuglien and then, because Byfuglien wouldn’t tell anyone in June that he was pulling the plug in September, they lost Brandon Tanev, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free-agency.
Then, Bryan Little played seven games before suffering an injury that will result in ear surgery, while Mathieu Perreault and Adam Lowry have missed much of the season and Josh Morrissey is still out on a day-to-day basis.
Despite it all, head coach Paul Maurice has somehow instilled something into this team that is probably a combination of heart, desire, black magic, duct tape and binder twine. Despite all the setbacks that could have destroyed the season, the Jets are now 33-27-6 and somehow still in the playoff conversation.
On Thursday night at Bell MTS Place, the Jets opened the scoring at 6:33 of the first period when defensemen Dmitry Kulikov blasted one from the point that went past everybody in front and then eluded Caps goaltender Ilya Samsonov, settling in the back of the net just under the bar. Blake Wheeler and Neal Pionk drew the assists.
That 1-0 lead held up until the 7:20 mark of the third period when Mark Scheifele outworked Michael Kempny for the puck behind the Washington net and slid a perfect pass onto the stick of Kyle Connor who whipped a quick wrister past a startled Samsonov to make it 2-0. D-man Anthony Bitetto picked up the other assist as Connor scored his 32nd of the season.
The Jets held on despite a fierce attack by Washington as Hellebuyck turned aside shot after shot in the third. Finally with 1:28 left, Scheifele scored his 28th of the season on a backhander into the empty Washington net to give the Jets a 3-0 advantage. Connor and Jack Roslovic drew the assists as the Jets improved to 8-4-2 in the month of February.
Washington outshot Winnipeg 34-32, won 62 per cent of the face-offs and outhit Winnipeg 17-16. However, they didn’t have Connor Hellebuyck.
Or Kyle Connor, who had the best line of the night: one goal, one assist, two points, plus-three, five shots and two takeaways in 20 minutes and 52 seconds of ice time. Scheifele’s line was pretty good, too: one goal, one assist, two points, plus three, one shot on goal and two takeaways in 21 minutes and 56 seconds of ice time.
The Jets were three-for-three on the penalty kill and are now 19-for-19 on the penalty kill in their past eight games, and 31-for-33 (94 per cent) in their past 14. Maurice was awestruck by the fact that his team shut down the power play of one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the NHL for the second straight night.
The Jets play again on Saturday night in Edmonton. Game time is 9 p.m. CST. They play at home again on Tuesday night, March 3 when the Buffalo Sabres come to the ‘Peg for a 7 p.m. CST start.