The under appreciated and underdog Winnipeg Jets started the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs with a shocker on Wednesday night.
Despite the fact they were without Top 6 forwards Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois and even though they were 2-7-0 against the Oilers this season and had lost their previous six meetings with Edmonton, the Jets came out and played a near-perfect defensive game and beat the Oilers 4-1.
With the win, the Jets took a 1-0 lead in the North Division semifinal, a series that Winnipeg’s media experts believed would not go more than five games because the Oilers were so powerful. It still might end in five, but if the Jets play the way they did on Wednesday at Rogers Centre in Edmonton three more times, it might end quickly the other way.
In order to win the opening game and ultimately the series, the Jets knew they (1) had to shut down Connor McDavid, the Oilers star who had 22 points in nine games against Winnipeg during the season, didn’t get his first shot on goal until the 4:14 mark of the third period; (2) they needed a solid game from the defensive unit, a group that was almost perfect on Wednesday night; (3) they needed a great game from goalie Connor Hellebuyck who had 16 saves in the second period and 32 overall; and (4) they needed some secondary scoring, which they got from Tucker Poolman and Dominic Toninato.
In fact, Toninato scored the winning goal, Hellebuyck was his 2020 Vezina Trophy self and the backend sextet of Poolman, Neal Pionk, Josh Morrissey, Logan Stanley, Dylan DeMelo and Derek Forbert were superb. The Oilers had 33 shots, but they didn’t have a lot of wide open scoring opportunities and very few odd-man rushes.
“I thought we played great defence and took advantage of our opportunities,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who celebrated his 28th birthday with a playoff win. “The guys around me were great tonight. They controlled the shots and I controlled the rebounds. The guys played great tonight.”
There was no scoring in the opening period as the Jets played solidly at both ends of the rink. Both teams had six shots on goal, there were no power plays and Edmonton won 53 per cent of the face-offs. Until the Jets’ Mark Scheifele missed a golden opportunity in the dying seconds of the period, there weren’t even very many good scoring opportunities.
In the second period, the Oilers came out flying. For prolonged stretches it appeared as if the Oilers were on a permanent power play. On their eighth shot of the period (the shots were 8-1 in the period), at 8:24, Jesse Puljujarvi fired a screen shot on a big rebound between Hellebuyck’s arm and his body and the Oilers had a 1-0 lead. Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse drew the assists.
However, the Jets bounced right back. Nate Thompson did a great job controlling the puck at his own blue line and got the biscuit onto the stick D-man Tucker Poolman. Poolman led a rush into the Oilers zone, left the puck for captain Blake Wheeler and Wheeler ripped a shot at Oilers’ goalie Mike Smith. As the rebound popped out, Poolman cut through the defence and slipped the puck between Smith’s legs to tie the game at 11:01. It was his first goal of 2021 and the first playoff goal of his career.
With that, the Jets had a little more spring to their step, although to be fair, the Oilers still dominated the period. Edmonton had the only power play, but the Jets did a great job killing it off. The Oilers outshot Winnipeg 16-8 (22-14 through 409 minutes), but only 8-7 in the final 10 minutes. Winnipeg had also blocked 12 shots to Edmonton’s five through the first two periods.
The Jets outhit Edmonton 52-37 through 40 minutes and by the end of the second had won 57 per cent of the face-offs. Despite the absence of Ehlers and Dubois, Winnipeg was right in the battle with 20 minutes to go.
In the third period, the Oilers were strong at the start once again, but the Jets seemed. to find a second wind. Then, with about 10 minutes left in the period, we got to hear the rare arena horn to stop play. Moments earlier, the Jets were putting pressure on the Oilers net when big Logan Stanley blasted a shot from the point. Dominic Toninato, tipped it and it appeared to go into the net. However, it went in and out so quickly that the referee didn’t see it.
As play continued, the Jets bench looked around and it seemed as if they were expecting the horn. When it eventually came, there was an immediate celebration. Officially, it was Toninato’s goal from Stanley and Thompson at 9:14 and with it, the road team had a 2-1 lead.
“Dom (Toninato) was put in a couple of games ago and since he’s been part of the lineup, he’s opened some eyes,” said Wheeler. “We had monitors on the bench and we looked at them pretty quickly. When the line changed, we expected to hear the horn. The guys on the bench knew it had gone in.”
Leading 2-1, the Jets played lockdown hockey for the final 10 minutes. There were no blind passes, plenty of blocked shots, lots of responsible puck control and no odd man rushes for the Oilers.
Finally, at 18:09, the Oilers pulled goalie Mike Smith and at 18:13 Kyle Connor fired the puck into the empty net to give Winnipeg a 3-1 lead. Just 32 seconds later, Wheeler scored into the empty net and a 2-1 thriller had become a 4-1 blowout.
“We wanted to get off to a good start and we did that,” Wheeler said. “We wanted to take a lot of good things out of that game and we did, and we hope to carry that over to Game 2.”
The Oilers outshot the Jets 33-22, but the Jets won 60 per cent of the face-offs and outhit the Oilers 68-50 (which seemed like such a crazy-large number of hits that both coaches commented afterward on what they thought was a bizarre hit-counting system). Winnipeg also had 19 blocked shots and Stanley had four of them to go with eight hits, an assist and a plus-one rating in just 16:52 of total ice time.
Meanwhile, Wheeler had a goal and an assist, Connor had a goal and an assist and Scheifele had two assists — and all but one of Wheeler’s assists came with the net empty. It was Poolman and Toninato who had taken advantage of the opportunities available to them to give Winnipeg the 2-1 lead that carried them to the upset. Fourth liner Nate Thompson, meanwhile, assisted on both of the first two goals.
Game 2 goes Friday night in Edmonton at 8 p.m. CDT on CBC and Sportsnet.