On Thursday evening, the Winnipeg Jets rang in the new year and the 2020-21 season at home against Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames of the newly-formed, all-Canadian Scotia North Division. Yes, those Calgary Flames. After falling to their Albertan rival in four games in the play-in qualifying round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Jets were out for revenge in the season-opener at Bell MTS Place.
After falling behind 3-1 through 20 minutes of play, the resilient Jets battled back, scoring three-straight goals, including the overtime-winner, en route to a 4-3 victory over Calgary.
Entering Thursday’s contest having won four of its last six home openers, Winnipeg was looking to build off its recent success. Facing off against Calgary a total of nine times this season, the Jets first four games against the Flames come at home, while the final five occur on the road at Scotiabank Saddledome.
With no spectators allowed inside the facility and the first eight rows of seats tarped off with colourful Jets logos and advertising, Winnipeg relied on artificial crowd noise pumped into the arena to help bring out the home ice advantage.
Despite hoping to dish out some retribution on Calgary following the injury suffered to leading scorer Mark Scheifele in the Edmonton hub-city ‘bubble’, the Jets were unable to slow down the scorching Flames and known agitator Matthew Tkachuk. As just 4:28 into the contest, the Flames’ leading point producer from 2019-20 potted his first of the season.
A sloppy start by Winnipeg led directly to the game’s opening goal, as a Tkachuk redirection off a Rasmus Andersson point shot put the Flames up 1-0. But just three minutes later, a miraculous goal-line save by offseason acquisition Derek Forbort led to Patrik Laine’s first of the campaign.
Sliding across the blue paint behind Connor Hellebuyck and preventing a sure Flames goal, Forbort blocked the puck, which ended up on the stick of Kyle Connor. Connor quickly turned up ice and found a streaking Laine, who ripped a wrister past Jacob Markstrom, knotting the game up at ones.
Calgary, however, was quick to restore its lead. With veteran forward Mathieu Perreault in the box for interference, Elias Lindholm found Johnny Gaudreau on a sensational fake-shot. Johnny Hockey put the puck past a discombobulated Hellebuyck, before pointing right back at Lindholm who craftily setup the Flames first power play marker of the year.
Lindholm and the Flames weren’t quite done there, as Calgary’s leading goal scorer from 2019-20 put a rocket past Hellebuyck from the slot with just 3:32 left to play in the opening frame. Up 3-1 after one period of play, the Flames also led 13-6 in the shot department following 20 minutes of hockey controlled more of less by the visitors.
Thursday marked the first game to which the Jets had given up three goals in the opening period since January 21, 2020 at Carolina – a span of 26 games. The Hurricanes eventually went on to win that game 4-1.
The second period was a total different story, with the tables turning upside down right from the get-go. A brutal Milan Lucic turner inside the Flames’ blueline led directly to Mark Scheifele’s first of the season. Collecting a Nik Ehlers, rebound, Scheifele easily tucked the loose puck past Markstrom, bringing Winnipeg to within one goal of the opposition just 34 seconds into the frame.
Already down a man following a too-many men penalty, Lindholm took a careless hooking penalty, giving Winnipeg a 44-second two-man advantage. Jets head coach Paul Maurice took a timeout and reconfigured his offence in a five-forward setup featuring Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Paul Stastny.
Maurice’s gamble paid off, as that combination needed just 33 seconds to bulge the twine and tie the game. Wheeler found Laine, who scorched a cross-ice pass to Connor, who one-timed his first of the season past Markstrom.
“The decider is the time on the clock,” Maurice said post-game. “So 44 (seconds) is enough time. We get into a lower time situation where we have 15 or 20 seconds we won’t go with five forwards. So there was enough time on the clock. That almost meant that because we were at 44 we had run through a bunch of time on the power play. So we worked on it last week. Five-on-three’s just such an incredible opportunity to score. You want to make sure those guys are fresh. With three timeouts each period each period, I don’t think the value of a timeout is what it used to be. So it gave you a little break.”
Despite a rather soft style of play, tempers did finally boil over with just 24 seconds left in the middle stanza. With Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin crunching connor from behind into the end boards, Laine stepped up and attempted to drop the mitts with both Hanifin and Tkachuk, before teammates and linesmen stepped between the four or five willing combatants.
“I think you’ve just got to stand up, protecting your teammates,” Paul Stastny said of the scuffle post-game. “Obviously if someone gets hit dirty or something happens, you’ve got to stand up for each other. That’s kind of been the big thing here. It was that when I was here a few years ago and I’m here now, it’s always been a tight-knit group. You see it and you see it off the ice and you see it on the ice. If it does get nasty, whether we’re stronger or tougher than they are doesn’t matter. We won’t back down. We’ll stand up for ourselves and protect our teammates and go out there and keep playing.”
The period ended with Calgary holding a slight 19-18 shot lead, with Winnipeg outshooting the visitors 12-6 in the frame.
The third period provided many opportunities on both sides of the puck, but with nothing materializing into goals, Winnipeg and Calgary found themselves deadlocked at threes through 60 minutes, and the game required overtime.
It took only 1:18 of overtime for the Jets to seal the deal. On the second shift of the period, Neal Pionk found Laine who walked down the ice, lost the puck, recollected it and fired another missile past Markstrom, winning the game for Winnipeg in one swift motion.
After allowing three goals on the Flames’ first 12 shots, Connor Hellebuyck seemingly settled in and found his game, picking up his first win with 23 stops on 26 Calgary shots, while Markstrom saw his all-time record against Winnipepg drop to 2-9-2, while finishing his night by turning aside 30 of 34 pucks fired his way.
Next up for Winnipeg is a three-game road trip out east, following a weekend off. The Jets will go to battle with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, before flying to Ottawa for the first of two games with the Senators on Tuesday and Thursday. All three games can be viewed live on TSN.