If you tuned in just a minute late to Tuesday’s game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators, you’d have essentially missed the Jets’ entire portion of the highlight package.
It wasn’t the strongest of performances from the boys in blue and white, but they did stay in the game through the dying seconds, as Nashville proved victorious by way of a 2-1 final.
Both Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele found the iron 30 seconds apart in the dying moments of Tuesday’s game, as the Jets pushed for an equalizer in the final minute of a losing effort.
The game was a showdown between two 2023 All-Star goaltenders, with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Nashville’s Juuse Saros facing off for the final time before teaming up as representatives on the Central Division All-Star team in early-February.
It was also an important intra-division matchup, with a possible four-point swing between the always-entertaining rivals. Luckily for fans at Bridgestone Arena, it was a back-and-forth battle with both netminders showing up to play.
Nashville outshot the Jets 41-33 on the night, taking over in what was an exceptionally strong second period for the road team.
Mind you, Winnipeg was playing its fifth road game in a stretch of just eight nights. Having gone 2-2 in its first four games of the arduous trip, the Jets were hoping to finish the heater on a high note.
“We played hard, for the most part, and just let up when we shouldn’t have and they didn’t,” Jets’ head coach Rick Bowness said post-game. “Their goalie made some huge saves for him, our goalie made some huge saves for us. It certainly wasn’t a 2-1 game in terms of offensive opportunites for either team. But both goalies were outstanding.”
Bowness’ club started off about as well as one could imagine, scoring just 48 seconds in the contest. Pierre-Luc Dubois got his 21st of the campaign, putting the puck past Saros following a great setup from his linemate Cole Perfetti. Collecting the puck on a cross-ice pass to Saros’ left, Dubois quickly tucked it into the Preds’ net to open the scoring less than a minute into the game.
“Just a great play by Smokie there to find me on that weak side off that forecheck. It came off my stick a little awkward, I had to turn and grabbled it,” Perfetti said. “I saw both KC and Dubie going to the net. The one guy took KC and it left Dubie wide open back door. I had to lead it a bit into him there and find him right behind that defenceman’s heel. It worked out well.”
A minute later, defenceman Logan Stanley – who was making his return to the Jets’ lineup after his second extended absence of the season – absolutely flattened Winnipeg native Cody Glass along the boards in his first shift back in action. Alex Carrier took exception, and the two squared off in an early game tilt. Stanley wrestled his counterpart to the ground as both teams cheered on their willing combatants.
Winnipeg won the first period, going up 1-0 in the frame on Dubois’ early tally, while putting up 15 shots to Nashville’s 13 after 20 minutes of play. But the second period was a whole different story.
Beginning the frame by taking an 8-1 shot advantage despite killing a penalty, the Predators came out hungry after the intermission. The home team finally knotted it up on Glass’ sixth of the season. He went straight to the net on an offensive zone face-off win and redirected a Roman Josi shot past Hellebuyck, making it 1-1 and bringing the home crowd back into the game.
Through 40 minutes the Predators jumped ahead to a 32-20 shot lead on a period that saw them outshoot the Jets 15-5. Winnipeg did have a few golden opportunities from Adam Lowry, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers in the frame, but just couldn’t seem to find a way to beat Saros a second time.
The third period was more of the same, however, the Jets did manage a few more shots than their second period total.
Tanner Jeannot gave Nashville its first lead of the game 5:38 into the frame, as he picked up a Tommy Novak rebound off the end boards and wrapped the puck around the back of the goal, narrowly dodging Hellebuyck’s left skate before tucking it into the open goal on his team’s 35th shot of the game.
Winnipeg did push back and managed to bring the game to within a half inch of a tie, but it was too little, too late as the Jets fell to 31-17-1 on the season. Both Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers rattled shots off the crossbar in the game’s final minute, as the Jets pressured with Hellebuyck on the bench for the extra attacker.
“Two posts in the last minute and a half is a pretty big game-changer,” Dubois said.
Hellebuyck ended up with 39 saves on the night.
“I think he’s the best goalie in the NHL,” Pierre-Luc Dubois said of his backstop. “You hate to say you expect it from him, but he plays a lot, a lot, a lot of good games. And he’s been extremely important to us this season and will be until the end.”
The loss gives Dallas some slight breathing room atop the Central Division, with Nashville picking up two points, bringing itself to 11 points of Winnipeg in the race for first. In losing the final match of the five-game road trip, Winnipeg fell to 2-3-0 in those five games, while dropping to 12-4 in games against the Central Division on the year.
“It’s disappointing going 2-3,” Dubois added. “We want to keep building that gap between us and other teams. This road trip kind of feels like a little slide down, but there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played and we can play better.”
With eight of its last nine games having come on the road, Winnipeg went a respectable 4-5-0 in an exceptionally busy last two weeks. The Jets and Predators have now split the season series at one game apiece with two more contests remaining before season’s end.
Next up for Winnipeg is stretch of three-straight home games to wrap up the month before the February All-Star break begins as the calendar page turns. The Jets host Buffalo on Thursday night from Canada Life Centre, before welcoming the familiar Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. They conclude the month with a Monday night visit from the St. Louis Blues. Thursday’s game will feature a 7:00 PM puck drop and can be viewed live on TSN.