The Winnipeg Jets very well may have been wearing their blue sweaters, and the all-too-familiar ‘Gonna Celebrate’ Phantoms goal horn may have rang out on five separate occasions Wednesday evening. But get this, the team was not playing in downtown Winnipeg, but rather at the NHL’s Western Conference hub city arena, Rogers Place, in Edmonton.
The Jets hosted the Vancouver Canucks from Alberta in the two teams’ lone exhibition game prior to their respective Qualifying Round best-of-five series’, set to begin on Saturday. The 9:30 PM central puck drop may have been an issue for the Canucks, who failed to score in each of the first and second periods. When Vancouver finally did end up finding the twine, it was too little, too late, after having allowed a strong Winnipeg offence a three-goal cushion through the better part of the contest.
The Jets were outshot 38-34 after falling behind 12-8 through the game’s first 20 minutes. Winnipeg scored first, second and third, before allowing their fellow Western Conference opponent a moment of joy. Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck was sensational in goal, while Blake Wheeler led the way with a goal and an assist for the Jets in the 4-1 victory Wednesday.
Although coming out of the gate rather sluggish, the Jets did manage to score the only goal of the opening frame. But it took nearly the entire 20 minutes of action to do so. In taking three of Winnipeg’s seven total shots in the first period, defenceman Tucker Poolman found daylight on the home team’s final shot.
Scoring Winnipeg’s first goal since a 4-2 victory over the Oilers in this exact building in Edmonton on March 11, Poolman collected a pass at the left point from captain Wheeler, before floating a long wrist shot past the glove of Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom, far side. The goal came with just 1:03 to play in the frame, one that Vancouver walked away from with an 11-8 lead in shots.
Following the script of the opening period, the Jets waited around until the later stages to put together much of their offence. However, this time Winnipeg doubled its production, putting up two goals in just 85 seconds, including markers from Nikolaj Ehlers and Dmitry Kulikov.
With 5:06 left to play in the second period, Ehlers joined a two-on-one rush up ice with linemate Patrik Laine. Following a low pad stop off of Laine’s shot by netminder Markstrom, Ehlers outdueled his opponent, picked up the puck and tucked it past the sprawling goalie, giving the Jets a 2-0 lead.
Then, at 16:19 of period, Andrew Copp pressured Vancouver into a costly defensive zone mistake, keeping his Jets teammates onside in the process. Copp found Jack Roslovic near the bottom of the left faceoff dot, who dropped a no-look pass to a streaking Kulikov. The big blueliner calmly walked towards the Vancouver net and found the twine with a low wrister, blocker side.
Vancouver saw a slight shimmer late in the third period, as grinder Antoine Roussel collected a ‘typical’ Antoine Roussel garbage goal, finishing off a nice setup play from Adam Gaudette with 6:47 to play. But with Markstrom on the bench for the extra attacker, Wheeler sealed the deal with an empty-net strike, helping finish off the Canucks, 4-1.
Hellebuyck made 37 stops on 38 Vancouver shots, including breakaway chances by both Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, while Markstrom turned aside 30 of Winnipeg’s 33 shots that he faced on the night.
Although there were many positives for head coach Paul Maurice to take from Wednesday evening’s victory, a significant cause for concern was a mid-third period collision between Ehlers and Gaudette that sent the Jets’ speedster to the dressing room early.
Ehlers did not return to the game following the seemingly innocent check, while forward Jansen Harkins was able to quickly dress and join the team on the bench, as coaches were allowed the privilege of dressing an extra forward and defenceman in this pre-playoff exhibition play. More information is expected to come on Ehlers in advance of Saturday’s Qualifying Round matchup.
Now having seen his full squad in action, coach Maurice will have both Thursday and Friday at his disposal in order to fully prep his team for the first game of the best-of-five Qualifying Round matchup against the Calgary Flames. The Jets and Flames begin their series on Saturday at 9:30 PM central from Edmonton for Game 1 of the play-in series. The game can be viewed live on both CBC and Sportsnet.