On any given night, each and every North Division team is fully capable of beating any opponent put in its path. Much like that of other recent North Division games, the Winnipeg Jets were reminded on Monday of the strengths of the Montreal Canadiens.
After taking five of a possible six points from the Toronto Maple Leafs this past week, the team returned to Winnipeg for a two-game set with the Habs, to which the Jets fell 4-2 on a strong performance from Carey Price and Co.
“You know, sometimes you get those back-and-forth games like we did in Toronto,” Nikolaj Ehlers said post-game. “And sometimes you get these games where it’s a little harder to get through. But that’s hockey. Every game is played differently and you’ve got to find ways to play differently and to make it work for you.”
Montreal started the scoring on Monday, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi picking up his fourth of the season after Andrew Copp and Derek Forbort combined for a poor defensive play. With Copp whiffing on a pass back to his defenceman and Forbort finding himself in no-man’s land, a diving Josh Anderson got the puck to Jonathan Drouin, who slid it over to Kotkaniemi, who put it into the open Jets’ net, just 4:01 into the period.
Despite a number of high danger chances by the visitors, including a Tomas Tatar between-the-legs dazzler, a Brendan Gallagher play in tight and an Anderson cross-bar, Hellebuyck remained sharp in his limited touches. Finishing the period with an 11-6 lead in the shot department, Winnipeg remained behind Montreal 1-0 on the scoreboard.
The middle stanza offered a look at some more Montreal offence. Following a Neal Pionk hooking minor, the visitors struck with 36 seconds remaining on the ensuing man advantage. Anderson banked a loose-puck rebound off Hellebuyck and into the net, giving the Habs a 2-0 lead 5:33 into the frame.
But then, on a power play opportunity of their own, Kyle Connor and the Jets found a special teams goal themselves. With Kotkaniemi in the box for holding, Connor collected the puck near the blueline and walked in all the way to the faceoff dot, before ripping his 13th of the season past a bothered Carey Price, who was dealing with a perfect Blake Wheeler screen. The goal took all of 43 power play seconds to create.
With less than a minute to go, the Habs took advantage of a puck bobbled by Josh Morrissey at the point and set up a nice goal up ice. With Neal Pionk under duress in the defensive zone, he coughed the puck up to Tyler Toffoli, who walked right in on Hellebuyck, forced the netminder to bite on a fake shot, and puck the puck into the yawning cage with 46 seconds to play.
“I mean, it jumps over the stick and goes towards our zone and Pionk is trying to get that puck out,” Ehlers said of the goal. “You know, he’s got three guys on him and ends up falling down though. I mean… Shit happens. Excuse my language but yeah. That’s just the way it is.”
Down 3-1 after 40 minutes, the Jets allowed Montreal to pump 17 shots on net in the frame, tying the home team in that category with 23 shots a piece in the game – including one Hellebuyck stop on a Brendan Gallagher penalty shot following a Josh Morrissey trip.
Winnipeg was able to cut Montreal’s lead to one goal in the early stages of the third period. With Brandon’s Joel Edmundson in the sin bin for tripping, Connor collected his second power play goal of the game. A long, drawn-out passing play between Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler saw Morrissey collect a pass at the point. Atoning for his earlier blunder, the blueliner got it across to Connor, who one-timed his 14th of the season past Price high, glove-side.
“Mark does such a good job of drawing everybody in,” Connor said of his second goal. “He then moves it down to Blake and they play catch a bit and it collapses everybody, so he moves it up to JMo up top. He’s either ripping that or slide it over and we’ve got a 2-on-1 with a forward up top and that’s kind of what I saw on the second one. He moved it over and I just tried to get that one up top.”
Unfortunately for Winnipeg, that was as close as the Jets would come to tying the game. With Hellebuyck on the bench for the extra attacker, Edmundson sprung Toffoli on a breakaway, where the Habs’ goal-scoring leader put his 17th into the empty cage, sealing the deal for Montreal with 47 seconds to play.
Hellebuyck finished the night with 27 saves on 30 Montreal shots, and saw his record fall to 12-8-2 on the season. With the win Price’s record improved to 9-5-4 through his 18 games. The Jets outshot Montreal 36-31 on the evening. Winnipeg is now 17-9-2 on the season and remain four points back of the dormant Toronto Maple Leafs.
“The three that are in our net, we’ve got them on our stick,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice of Montreal’s attack. “They’re quick and they’ve got good sticks. They don’t pressure with a whole lot of physicality; they pressure with some quickness and they knock an awful lot of pucks down. I thought part of that is hand skills, kind of players they have. But we would think we got to do more with the pucks we had on our sticks that ended up in our net.”
The Jets and Habs will be right back at it on Wednesday evening once again from Bell MTS Place in the second of two-straight between the North Division rivals. Wednesday’s matchup will feature an 8:00 PM central start time and will be available on TSN. Winnipeg will then head out for a seven-game western Canada road trip, beginning on Thursday with the first of two-straight against the Edmonton Oilers.