The new sheriff in town wasn’t around for the season opener.
Fortunately, his team showed up.
While the Winnipeg Jets’ newly-appointed head coach Rick Bowness watched the game from home, the latest victim of the coronavirus bivalent 323.762 or something (didn’t all those Conservative provincial governments across Canada tell us COVID was over??), the guys he was tasked with turning into a playoff hockey team, did a number on the Stanley Cup contending (that’s what TSN’s experts tell me) New York Rangers.
Friday night in front of a raucous crowd at Canada Life Centre, the Jets opened the 2022-23 season with an impressive 4-1 win over the Rangers, one night after New York had blitzed the Minnesota Wild 7-3.
Associate head coach Scott Arniel took the reins behind the bench for the opener and the Jets looked like a brand new shinny squad. Or, maybe, just maybe, they looked like the 52-20-10 Jets of 2018, the team that made it to the conference final. Remember that team? That team was fun. many of this team’s best players were on that team. I hope they didn’t forget.
Anyway, the team that hit the ice on Friday, played as if it just might be good enough to match the Jets of that glorious 2018 season — the one that took place before we’d ever heard of COVID.
The Jets jumped out to a quick 1-0 first-period lead on a goal by Mark Scheifele, a guy twho caused some to worry, last spring, that he might not want to play in the ‘Peg. He certainly didn’t look like a guy who wanted to be someplace else on Friday.
In the second period, the Rangers took the play to Winnipeg and that’s when goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stepped up and played like the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner. He was brilliant, quick and aggressive. It could have been 4-1 or 5-1 Rangers after two but Hellebuyck stopped all 22 New York shots he faced and the Jets had a 1-0 advantage heading to the third.
When the Rangers’ Dryden Hunt scored at 3.55 of the third, it appeared as if New York was indeed coming after the home side, but that’s when Winnipeg gave its head a collective shake and suddenly started taking the play to the Rangers.
Newcomer Sam Gagner scored the eventual winner at 15:35, Scheifele ripped home a laser to make it 3-1 on the power play at 18:23 (after the hated Jacob Trouba fired a puck into the stands and took a minor penalty) and then Kyle Connor slipped one into the empty net and the Jets had a slick 4-1 win.
Sure, Winnipeg looked sluggish in the second, but they continued to play well defensively and Hellebuyck did what Hellebuyck can do. In the end, he stopped 40 of 41 shots and was the game’s first star.
In fact, the cover of our first issue of Game On Magazine this season featured the Jets’ biggest stars and Carter Brooks wrote a terrific piece on how the stars have to shine if Winnipeg is going to be successful.
On Friday night, the stars shined.
(a) Scheifele was outstanding at both ends of the ice. He had two goals and made more than one solid defensive play deep in his own end. He looked like a player who has bought into Bowness’ new system.
(b) Connor should have had five goals and Nikolaj Ehlers should have had three. They were all over the puck on Scheifele’s line, all night.
(c) Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey were the defensive leaders, as was Dylan DeMelo, and at times (most times) Pionk looked better than Trouba — the guy he was traded for.
(d) And Hellebuyck was Hellebuyck.
It’s not going to be easy to match Friday’s performance. The Jets beat a very good team that does very good things with the puck. But on this night Bowness’ new system was in fine working order and the Jets were rewarded for the way they played, worked and hustled.
If they do it all season, Canada Life Centre will once again be a great place to spend a long, cold Winnipeg winter.