The Winnipeg Jets captured a pair of victories against the Montreal Canadiens in the first two games of a five-game eastern road trip. Here are three takeaways from the 120 minutes of hockey at the Bell Centre.
1) Maurice’s Line Blender Got Good Results
After having consistent lines for nearly all of March, head coach Paul Maurice did some tinkering before and during the pair of games.
Part of that was out of necessity, as Blake Wheeler didn’t make the road trip due to a suspected concussion he sustained on April 5 after taking a Brady Tkachuk elbow to the head. Losing the captain meant Andrew Copp began the two-game set as second-line right-winger with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Paul Stastny.
Meanwhile, Mathieu Perreault jumped to the third line to play with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, and Jansen Harkins drew into the lineup to play on the fourth line with Trevor Lewis and Nate Thompson.
But part of the line juggling was also an attempt to build some chemistry going into the postseason between players who don’t skate on the same line together often. With a playoff position seeming more and more like a lock, they could afford to do some experimentation.
“I would like to get to the playoffs with a handle on a bunch of different looks so that anything you might contemplate into the playoffs you’ve looked at once or twice so there’s a bit of a familiarity. That goes to styles of game that you’ll play against, what’s effective in heavier games, in speed games, rush teams, all those kinds of things, what’s your best line up” Maurice explained on Friday. “And then when you get there, it’s about what’s hot, what’s working.”
Maurice trotted out a new look in the third period of Thursday’s 4-2 victory, after his team generated only 15 shots through two. He moved Nikolaj Ehlers to second-line right wing and Copp to the top line.
Those are the lines the Jets rolled in Saturday’s contest with as well, and they rolled to a well-deserved 5-0 win.
“With the lines the way I had them, there was almost too much of the same thing on each line,” Maurice explained post-game Thursday of the in-game switch up, going on to say that the top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Ehlers gave up too many grade-A chances on the rush.
“I was very comfortable with where Andrew Copp’s game was on his off side, so that’s why the change happened,” Maurice continued.
The more Jets familiar with each other, the better. If injuries arise like they did in last summer’s disappointing series against the Calgary Flames, or if they just need a spark, everyone will be ready to play with just about everyone else.
2) Jets’ D-Men Finally Found Some Offensive Flair
Jets’ defensemen had scored only seven goals all season long coming into the series. While they don’t need to be high-scoring — just as stout and sturdy as possible — since the Jets are so talented up front, it was nice to see the blue-liners tickle some twine.
The Jets got two goals from defensemen in the two-game series. Josh Morrissey got his side off to a great start on Thursday, potting his third of the season just 18 seconds in.
On Saturday, Derek Forbort — a defensive defenseman in every sense of the term — notched his his first goal since Feb. 2 and second of the season when he went roof-daddy on Jake Allen in the final minute of the second period.
The d-corp also combined for five assists in the two games: Forbort had an apple on Thursday, as did Neal Pionk and Logan Stanley. Pionk and Morrissey both had assists on Saturday.
3) Hellebuyck Is Dialled In
Connor Hellebucyk allowed a fluky goal in the second period of Thursday’s game, when the puck took a crazy carom off the back glass off a Jesperi Kotkaniemi dump-in and right to Paul Byron, who deposited the puck into the empty net.
The bad bounce didn’t phase the big backstop, though. He shook it off and shut the door the rest of the way (finishing with 36 saves) and followed that up with a 19-save shutout on Saturday.
His second shutout of the 2020-21 season was also his 20th win. It’s the fifth straight season he’s hit the mark in.
Hellebuyck’s stoic nature and ability to shake off a bad goal or bad outing are two of his biggest assets. He hasn’t had many of the latter lately, as he’s now 7-1-1 in his last nine starts.
With a GAA of 2.45 and a SV% of .921, Hellebuyck’s numbers are quite good, but he might not get as much Vezina consideration as he did last season when he bailed out the Jets’ leaky D night after night and ultimately won the award.
The North Division — with elite offensive talents lurking on every team such Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Tyler Toffoli, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Petterson, and Bo Horvat — is bar-none the toughest division for net minders.
Vezina hype or no Vezina hype, Hellebuyck’s play has been highly impressive. He’s been the Jets’ best player on a regular basis and his teammates obviously appreciate him, as does Maurice.
The head coach recently compared him to Tom Barrasso. He said Hellebuyck — like the two-time Stanley Cup champion of 777 career games — has “an unshakable faith in (his) abilities, and not an arrogance about (his) abilities, (but) an understanding of how good (he) is.” (From ‘Unshakable and unpretentious, Hellebuyck draws comparisons to Barrasso, love from teammates,’ Winnipeg Sun, April 9, 2021.)