The Winnipeg Jets, coming off a surprising 4-1 victory in Game 1 against the Edmonton Oilers, shocked the hockey world again Friday night, winning 1-0 in overtime. Here are three takeaways from the tight affair that saw the Jets take a 2-0 series lead.
Hellebuyck Brought His A-Game Again
After making 32 saves on his 28th birthday, one question going into Game 2 was what Connor Hellebuyck would do for an encore performance.
The answer to that question was that he would turn away all 38 shots against in a goaltending duel, outlasting the similarly impressive Mike Smith. Hellebuyck has turned aside 70 out of 71 shots in the series so far.
After 60 minutes came and went without a goal, Sportsnet’s Kelly Hrudey described Hellebuyck as looking like “a general.” He was cool as a cucumber even when starting down Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who played together on the top line in Game 2.
His rebound control was on point, his composure on the penalty kill was excellent, and he looked as locked in as he ever has. While some of his saves were undeniably ten-bell, he was generally, big, boring, and technically sound.
The Oilers targeted the lower part of the net throughout the game — despite exploiting Hellebuyck up high all throughout the regular season — but Hellebuyck battled to get a pad on every single puck flung his way.
Blake Wheeler spoke glowingly about Hellebuyck after the game, saying the goaltender is the reason the Jets are a playoff team and have confidence every time they hit the ice.
“You just can’t say enough about having a guy that you believe is going to stop every shot,” he said. “And when one does go in, you just kind of say, ‘well, that was lucky.’ You know what I mean? It’s such a great confidence boost for the group when you don’t feel like you have to play perfect hockey… it just gives guys so much confidence to go out there and play with a little bit more freedom, play with a little but more confidence knowing that if I make the wrong play at the wrong time, I got a guy back there that can bail me out.”
Jets’ Aggression On Defence Paid Off
The Jets continued to doggedly pursue the Oilers’ stars as they did in Game 1 when they dished out 68 hits and tried to make their lives as difficult as possible. They once again suffocated McDavid and Draisaitl, putting big-time pressure on them and engaging them at every opportunity.
Instead of playing “safe” defensively, they stepped up and dared the pair to beat them. They couldn’t.
The Jets’ defenders were more aggressive than at perhaps any point in the regular season. This was most noticeable on their three penalty kills, where they closed in on puck possessors quickly instead of collapsing in front of the net. AT even strength, the Jets successfully stacked the blue line more than usual to prevent zone entires, and when the Oilers did enter the zone, the Jets had more successful clearances thanks to their tenacity.
A prime example of this was the defensive-zone play prior to Paul Stasny’s overtime winner. Tucker Poolman was engaged at the defensive blue line with Alex Chiasson, who was attempting to carry the puck in. While Chiasson did manage to get the puck to the goal line, Poolman stayed on him, regained the puck, and got it to Andrew Copp. Copp carried the puck through the neutral zone before getting it to the veteran Stastny, whose seeing-eye puck found its way through a couple of screens and past Smith.
The Jets had their sticks in the right position for most of the game, and their anticipation was excellent as they limited the number of times the Oilers could work the puck into high-danger areas.
Jets Are Feeling Good About Their Playoff Performance Thus Far, Despite Lack of Offence
To win both games in enemy territory against a heavily-favoured opponent — and to do it while holding McDavid and Draisaitl completely off the scoresheet — is extremely impressive.
It’s truly something no one saw happening, author included. This writer predicted McDavid — who recorded a ridiculous 105 points this season, would have multiple points in every game of the series (he did just that in all nine regular-season match ups between the squads.) Most pundits expected the NHL’s most talented player to run roughshod over the underdog Jets and this series to be over quickly.
Head coach Paul Maurice admitted he didn’t think holding McDavid and Draisaitl scoreless through the first two games was “overly realistic.”
“There’s a cost to it too, right? We’re not generating a tremendous amount of offence in the game but that’s the price that has to be paid to be on the right side for the most time and if you’re not, to make sure the puck stays on the outside,” he said post-game.
“We’ve had to give a little up here to give ourselves a chance, those guys are so dangerous, so elite, and when we haven’t, Connor Hellebuyck has been.”
Despite not piling up the goals, the Jets are —and should be — happy with their overall performance. The wins haven’t been flashy but are instead of a result of a hard-working collective effort and every man being on the same page, Dylan DeMelo said.
“We just did everything we could to get the win. It maybe wasn’t perfect or pretty every play, but I think we have a team that can grind real well,” the defender said. “And this time of year it’s going to take everybody. Every blocked shot matters, every hit matters.”
“I think we’re just coming together right now as a team and everybody’s pulling on the same rope, and it’s been a lot of fun here,” he continued. “To come out with two wins here is huge. We still got a lot of work to do and they’re not going to roll over. That game was a lot of fun. When everybody’s contributing like that, our bench was real good, it was just a lot of fun.”
The series is far from over, but the Jets have every right to feel good going into Sunday’s Game 3.