In a game in which the Winnipeg Jets got four important players back from injury, it was a pair of guys who haven’t missed a game all year who provided the bulk of the offence in a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Cole Perfetti and Nate Schmidt all returned from injuries. But it was Pierre-Luc Dubois who scored a pair of markers, while Kyle Connor recorded the game-winning goal and also added an assist to help the Jets to their fourth straight victory in a thrilling game at the Canada Life Centre.
“That was a great hockey game right from beginning to the end,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “We couldn’t get our rhythm in the first. It got better as the game went on, but certainly from the drop of the puck to the end, the intensity was there.
“That means the intention is there, and the heart is there, and it’s in the right place. That was a hell of a hockey game. Fans got their moneys worth tonight, man.”
The two sides traded goals in each of the first two periods, but Connor scored on the power play five minutes into the third frame to give the Jets their first lead, one they would not relinquish the rest of the night.
“It’s a good measuring stick game for us,” said Dubois who was playing his 400th NHL game. “Especially, we got a lot of guys back. It’s not easy for those guys to miss, whether it’s three months or couple weeks, but it was a big team win for us tonight.”
Special teams played a huge factor with the Jets scoring twice in six opportunities on the man advantage, while killing off all four of their own penalties against the league’s sixth ranked power play.
“A relentless effort,” Connor said. “Everybody buying in, blocking shots, getting the clears, just baring down. They’ve been one of our best attributes all season. We need special teams. Power play came up with a couple big goals, but I think our penalty kill has been right there at the top of the league the whole season, and it really showed it’s strength tonight.”
“Specialty teams were obviously outstanding,” said Bowness. “Scotty Arniel has done a fantastic job with the penalty kill. They won the game for us tonight.”
It was a milestone game for the Jets head coach. It was Bowness’ 2600th game behind an NHL bench, which is the most in league history.
Connor’s goal was his 41st career game winner, passing Ilya Kovalchuk for most in franchise history. And Connor and Josh Morrissey both tied a franchise record for longest home point streak at 10 games.
The Lightning played without defenceman Victor Hedman who went back home for the birth of his baby.
Fans who didn’t get to their seat in time for the opening puck drop had to wait a while as 9:36 elapsed before the first whistle of the game.
A couple minutes after the stragglers filed in, Steven Stamkos was left alone in front of the Jets goal but Connor Hellebuyck made a great save to deny the Lightning captain.
But off the ensuing faceoff, Anthony Cirelli banged home a rebound to give Tampa Bay the early lead.
With the visitors seemingly in full control, the sides played 4-on-4 to finish off the first and with just 39 seconds left in the frame, the Jets got on the board.
Connor got the puck at the top of the faceoff dot in the Lightning end and for some reason, Tampa let him walk into the slot and rip a shot that deflected off Dubois and past Andrei Vasilevskiy to even the score after 20 minutes.
The Lightning held a 12-4 advantage in shots on goal after the first and built off that less than two minutes into the second.
A wrister from Nikita Kucherov in transition managed to elude Hellebuyck to restore the Lightning lead 95 seconds into the period.
But Winnipeg pushed back, earning a 5-on-3 power play that helped them even the score again.
With Cal Foote and Nick Paul in the box, Dubois got his second of the game from right in front of the net, this time deflecting a Morrissey point shot past Vasilevskiy.
Each team would get an additional power play look in the period but the score remained deadlocked at two through 40 minutes.
After sitting out the last 36 contests, Ehlers had been pretty quiet through the first two periods of his first game since Oct. 17, but he made his presence known early in the third.
He won a foot race in the neutral zone to earn a 2-on-1, and while he was denied twice by Vasilevskiy, he drew a cross-checking penalty from Stamkos. Six seconds later, Vladislav Namestnikov sent the puck over the glass to give the Jets a second lengthy 5-on-3 of the night.
To make matters worse for the Lightning, one of their penalty killers lost his stick, and the Jets made sure to make Tampa Bay pay.
After several passes and with Lightning players on the bench trying to give their teammate a new stick, Connor whipped a wrister on net that grazed off Mikhail Sergachev and through Vasilevskiy, putting Winnipeg in the lead 5:38 into the third.
Despite this being only the third meeting between the two clubs since the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of chippiness, way more post-whistle skirmishes than you would normally see in a Jets game.
It felt like a fight was going to happen, and just past the midway point of the third it did. Mark Scheifele took a bite out of Haydn Fleury with a clean hit, prompting Cirelli to come to Fleury’s defence and after a few crosschecks, Scheifele decided to drove the gloves with Cirelli.
It was a very quick fight before the two fell to the ice but the crowd loved it. It was the third fight of Scheifele’s NHL career.
To get to the finish line, the Jets penalty kill needed to come up large and kill off a pair of minor penalties. After taking care of a Dubois penalty, they went back to work with just under two minutes remaining when Connor took his second penalty of the night.
With the goalie pulled to make it a 6-on-4, Adam Lowry chipped the puck down the ice and Morgan Barron, who Wednesday night won the team’s fastest skater competition, won a foot race and tucked the puck into the Tampa goal for the nail in the coffin.
Hellebuyck made 26 saves. Schmidt, Perfetti, Ehlers and Wheeler were all held off the scoresheet in their returns to the lineup.
Winnipeg will look to make it five straight wins when they host the Vancouver Canucks Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. Pregame coverage on 680 CJOB begins at noon.
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