For the first time in what feels like forever, the Winnipeg Jets have moved into first place across the NHL’s entire Western Conference. Boasting a 29-14-1 record, the Jets now sit tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils for third league-wide with 59 total points. Only the 33-win Boston Bruins have more victories on the season than Winnipeg.
Losers of eight-straight, the second-last place Coyotes travelled to the uncharacteristically warm city of Winnipeg for a Sunday night battle, in what proved to be a rather characteristic game from the ‘Yotes and goaltender Karel Vejmelka.
With a rare day back in town following what continues to be a very road-heavy January schedule, the Jets slugged out a win for the hometown crowd at Canada Life Centre, narrowly outshooting the visitors 24-21, while outscoring their southern rivals even more narrowly, 2-1.
“I think anytime that you get this far into the season and you can be at the top of the division or the conference, yeah, it’s meaningful,” head coach Rick Bowness said post-game. “It’s a credit to their resilience that we’re sitting here where we are today. So give the players a lot of credit.”
Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler had the goals for Winnipeg, while Connor Hellebuyck managed to outduel the always difficult Karel Vejmelka en route to an important win before heading back on the road for five-straight.
Arizona Coyotes goaltender Karel Vejmelka's career stats:
Karel Vejmelka vs. the #NHLJets:
— Carter Brooks (@CBrooksie84) January 16, 2023
Dubois opened the scoring for Winnipeg just 37 seconds into the second period, capitalizing on a Lawson Crouse tripping penalty. He redirected yet another Josh Morrissey shot, potting his 20th of the season, and giving Winnipeg a much-needed goal past what has been a wall of a goaltender over the past couple years in Winnipeg.
But it was Clayton Keller who responded for the ‘Yotes, scoring his 15th of the season on a solo effort midway through the frame, silencing the home crowd. The goal came on Arizona’s first shot of the period, and fifth of the game.
Five minutes later, Wheeler finished off a beautiful passing play between his linemates Cole Perfetti and Mark Scheifele. Perfetti collected the puck in the offensive zone and outwaited two Arizona defenders as he worked his way to and behind the net, before inconspicuously sliding the puck to his centreman. As opposed to shooting it on Vejmelka, Scheifele opted to cross it to Wheeler, who hammered it into the wide-open cage, restoring Winnipeg’s one-goal lead.
“I was just tired and wanted to get off the ice. I was hoping one of them would score,” Wheeler joked. “Scheif had a bit of a break and it was kind of tough to get it to him. And then was just trying to create some space there for Cole. Those guys made a couple great plays and it was up to me to shovel it in.”
With Nick Bjugstad in the box for roughing, the Jets got their best shot of the first half of the third period. It was a hungry Dubois, who rattled one off the iron, coming just an from the team’s third tally of the game.
It was Dubois and Connor who teamed up for another chance midway through the frame, but the solid Vejmelka stood his ground as the period wore on.
With 1:54 to go, Arizona pulled Vejmelka in hopes of finding the equalizer with the extra attacker, but nothing worked and Hellebuyck and the Jets managed to hold on, cashing in on first place in the Western Conference in the process.
Connor Hellebuyck turned aside 20 of Arizona’s 21 shots on the evening and saw his record improve to 22-10-1 on the year, while Karel Vejmelka fell to 11-16-4.
“These guys have given us a tough time in this building,” Wheeler said. “And that goaltender has given us a tough time. I don’t think we came here expecting to blow them out. We kind of knew the style of game it was going to be. We just stuck with it and got the two points, that’s really all that matters.”
The Jets will now hit the road for five-straight, concluding what will be a stretch of eight of nine overall on the road. As some of the players put it, Saturday and Sunday gave them a chance to “do some laundry” and then get back to the rink.
Winnipeg will begin the trip with three-straight against Eastern Canadian rivals, with stops in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, before wrapping things up with games in Philadelphia and Nashville early next week. Four of the five games feature 6:00 PM central start times, which have become something of the norm at this point in the schedule lately.
With their record currently sitting at 29-14-1, the Jets will look to improve on their 12-8-1 road record this season and maintain their lead over the Dallas Stars in atop the Central Division and retain their lead in the West.