The first pre-season game of any hockey campaign is a great opportunity to work out the kinks. Sunday night in Winnipeg, there were certainly a lot of kinks to work out.
The official record — a meaningless official record, by the way — will forever show that the Ottawa Senators beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 in overtime in the first pre-season game with actual fans in the stands at Canada Life Centre since the National Hockey League was shut down by COVID in March of 2020.
Despite the loss, Jets head coach Paul Maurice was happy to get back into a building with fans yelling, not canned noise and empty seats.
“You could smell the popcorn when you come out to the bench,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “Then it just feels so much better than it was even almost in the playoffs. I mean, it was an exhibition game so there isn’t anywhere near the intensity of it, but having people in the building is fantastic. Just visually from the bench, it’s more fun.”
It will also state that just 25 seconds into overtime Ottawa’s Shane Pinto skated all around the Winnipeg zone and eventually ripped a high shot over Jets goalie Eric Comrie’s shoulder to give the Senators the win.
Of course, for the fans in attendance there was even more hockey. Before the game, the coaches agreed to have a shootout no matter the final score. Ottawa won that, too, 3-1.
However, this was a night for veterans to shake off the rust and for younger players to try and win a job. In the end, it was a pretty good night for Jets backup goalie Mike Comrie, young D-men Logan Stanley and Brenden Dillon, rookie forward Cole Perfetti and the oft-maligned Pierre-Luc Dubois. To be fair, the young five some wasn’t consistently great, but for the much of the contest, they were the most visible players on the ice.
If nothing else, they showed they could play well at an NHL level even though many of the players in both lineups were American Hockey Leaguers.
Former Brandon Wheat Kings star, Ridly Greig, opened the scoring for Ottawa at 11:30 of the opening period on a beautiful move around a confused and stumbling Ville Heinola. He roofed a backhand past Comrie to make it 1-0.
Then Pierre-Luc Dubois, who looked quite comfortable in his No. 80, scored on the power play at 19:23 after taking a great pass from Jansen Harkins in close. Nikolaj Ehlers also drew an assist as the Jets tied the game 1-1 heading into the break.
The Senators, who had four power (0/4) plays to Winnipeg’s three (1/3), outshot the Jets 12-10.
The Jets went ahead 2-1 at 2:13 of the second period when Brenden Dillon led a rush out of the Jets end, hit CJ Suess on a great pass at the Sens blue line and Suess ripped a roofer over the shoulder of Ottawa’s Anton Forsberg.
Less than a minute later Ottawa’s Dillon Hetherington and Winnipeg’s Luke Johnson had a nice little scrap. In a game that had everything from a scoreboard malfunction (the shots were 30-24 for most of the first period) to a phantom whistle that negated an Ottawa breakaway, a fight or two was probably inevitable.
Rather surprisingly, both teams played some angry, chippy pre-season hockey.
Midway through the period, Greig picked up a five minute major and a game misconduct for cross-checking Dubois. On the ensuing man-advantage, the Jets were completely out of synch and in five minutes with a half-dozen power-play units, they had one good scoring opportunity.
The period ended with the Jets still ahead 2-1. Winnipeg outshot Ottawa 11-5.
The Sens tied the game at the 12:17 mark of the third period when Andrew Agozzino hit a streaking Alex Formonton with perfect cross-ice pass and Formonton beat Comrie with a wrister to the corner.
That 2-2 tie held up for the remainder of regulation time as both teams had good moments and sloppy ones, too.
The officiating needed work, too. In the third period, Igor Sokolov tried to end Logan Stanley’s career with a gruesome slew foot. It was a clear attempt to injure. But after the dust cleared Sokolov got a tripping penalty while Stanley was sent off for cross-checking. It was a brutal even-up call and was living proof why fighting is required in the National Hockey League. The officials aren’t going to protect the players so the players need to do it themselves.
So, as soon as Stanley played his next shift, he got into a scrap with Austin Watson and eventually wrestled Watson to the ice. The crowd loved it and Stanley responded by pounding his helmet against the penalty box glass to show his appreciation.
In the end, the Senators prevailed thanks to Pinto’s brilliant overtime goal, but Winnipeg did outshoot Ottawa 33-27 and outhit them 24-20. The Jets were one-for-five on the power play while Ottawa was zero-for-four.
“I think it was just fun to see some faces in the stands,” said Logan Stanley. “I think they were having a good time, as were all the guys. I was talking to a few guys before the game, there was a little bit of butterflies just because we haven’t played in front of fans for quite a long time. It was good to see faces in the building. I think they had a lot of fun.”
Winnipeg plays again on Wednesday night when the Edmonton Oilers invade Canada Life Centre. Game time is 7 p.m.