Led by Nikolaj Ehlers, the Winnipeg Jets picked up an important regulation victory over the visiting Arizona Coyotes from Bell MTS Place Monday evening, marking their sixth-straight home win. Ehlers had a goal and two assists, both Cody Eakin and Tucker Poolman picked up a goal and an assist, while Connor Hellebuyck stopped 25 of the 27 shots he faced en route to a 4-2 win.
“We wanted to finish off this home stretch the right way,” Ehlers said post-game. “That first period, we created a bunch of good stuff. Then the second period we came out the right way. The first shift that we had we were in their zone for a minute thirty or whatever. So we came out the right way and we were able to continue that for the next 40 minutes and get those two points. We feel good. We’re happy with where we’re at. But we’ve still got a couple other levels to get to.”
Monday also marked the return of centreman Adam Lowry back to the Jets’ lineup following a 20-game injury absence. His presence was felt early as he delivered a rock-solid check on Arizona’s Vinnie Hinostroza, before dropping the mitts and pummeling Lawson Crouse at centre ice. Lowry threw multiple heavy bodychecks throughout the course of the game, including another bone-rattler on Ilya Lybushkin in the second period. To make room for Lowry in the Jets’ lineup, Jansen Harkins drew out of the starting 12.
“I think the first shift you want to get some bumps in, you want to make sure your body’s feeling good,” Lowry said. “Obviously you have some controlled contact and a little bit of bumping in practice, but there’s nothing like the physicality of a game. So you get that out of the way. I figured I’d just try to give the fans something to cheer about early. Chances are it wasn’t going to be a goal. So I had to give them a little something.”
Despite outshooting the visitors 11-7, Winnipeg gave up the game’s opening two goals, with Phil Kessel finding himself involved in both scoring plays. With 4:10 to go in the first period, Nick Schmaltz collected his 10th goal of the season, picking up a pass from Kessel, before driving the puck across the ice and burying it past Connor Hellebuyck high blocker side.
“I think I simplified a little bit, just get it in and get on the forecheck,” Schmaltz said. “I thought Carl (Soderberg) and Phil (Kessel) were really good at getting on them, and we were staying close together and supporting each other and then making our plays from there. Those guys were all over the puck tonight and I was on the receiving end, fortunately.”
Then, with just seconds to go, Schmaltz got his second of the game, as the final player to touch the disc before it entered the Jets’ net following a Kessel shot on a botched zone entry. The goal was officially credited to the Coyotes with 2.2 seconds remaining in the frame. Next most interesting part of the period was a centre-ice collision between Ehlers, Michael Grabner and Christian Fischer. Ehlers took a helmet to the face before leaving the ice bleeding. Although going straight to the dressing room, he came back without missing a shift.
Although giving up the late first period marker, Winnipeg did not falter in the middle stanza, coming out with gumption, scoring twice and knotting the game up at twos. Just 2:13 in, Nikolaj Ehlers picked up a long Tucker Poolman stretch pass and potted his 25th goal of the season as he motored past the Coyotes defence, before tucking the puck past Darcy Kuemper.
At 17:27 of the second, Poolman collected a goal of his own, cleaning up on a Cody Eakin rebound, jumping on a loose puck and putting his fourth of the season into the back of the net. Ehlers found his second point of the night as he collected the secondary assist on the game-tying strike. Through 40 minutes of play, Winnipeg held a slight 26-19 shot advantage over Arizona.
The third period saw chances going both directions, with the only meaningful scoring opportunity coming on the stick of newly-acquired Cody Eakin. The Winnipeg product made no mistake, scoring his first goal as a Jet with 8:27 remaining in the final frame. Eakin won the offensive zone draw, Patrik Laine fired a shot off Nikolaj Ehlers, who kicked the puck to Eakin. The former Winnipeg Wild AAA star calmly collected the puck and put it past Kuemper on the game-winner.
“It felt great, the crowd was loud and into it,” Eakin said about his goal. “It’s been a while so to chip in in that way you’re doing good work out there. It felt good. That’s a big game by us. Being down two to start. They’re a hungry team. We ended up stopping the bleeding there and finishing it off the right way.”
Mark Scheifele added an empty net strike with half a minute remaining, putting the cherry on the top for the playoff hungry Jets. Hellebuyck outdueled Kuemper, allowing just two goals, compared to Kuemper’s three.
The Jets entered Monday night sitting fourth in the Western Conference Wild Card race, while the Coyotes sat one game behind Winnipeg with 74 points, compared to Winnipeg’s 76 points. With Minnesota (77 points), Vancouver (76 points) and Nashville (76 points) not skating Monday, the Jets were able to jump back into the first Wild Card place, despite having more games played (70) than their challengers.
In picking up two points Monday while also disallowing the Coyotes to register even a single point, the Jets did themselves a favour in the standings, as the importance of every game becomes that much more significant with the final month of the season fully underway. Next up for Winnipeg will be a three-game, western Canada road trip through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. Puck drop in Edmonton is set for 8:00 PM central Wednesday evening. All three games can be viewed live on Sportsnet.