WINNIPEG—The Jets entered Friday night’s game against Detroit with a precarious hold on the second wild card spot. They desperately needed a win any way they could find it, but what they got was an offensive explosion.
Six Jets scored in what became a 6-2 Jets drubbing of the Red Wings. Eleven of Winnipeg’s 18 skaters earned at least one point. Kyle Connor scored his second goal in 15 games, Blake Wheeler got his first goal in 22 games, and Mark Scheifele — whose move from center to right wing was the talk of Jets morning skate — swatted home a deflected puck to score his first goal in 10 games, setting a new career high of 39 goals on the play.
And that was just the first period.
Dylan DeMelo scored his career-high fifth goal of the season on a seeing-eye wrist shot from the top of the circle. Nino Niederreiter drove the net on a 3-on-2 pass and corralled a hard pass from Mason Appleton, eventually stuffing the puck between Magnus Hellberg’s on his backhand. Nikolaj Ehlers was buzzing all night, rebounding from a curious third-line demotion to set Wheeler up with a perfect backdoor pass before scoring Winnipeg’s sixth goal of the night.
The Jets desperately needed a win by any means and the six-goal explosion equaled the team’s output in its five previous games combined. Winnipeg had been shut out three times in its last seven games and some players’ scoring slumps had grown beyond disappointing and well into disorienting. The Jets needed exactly the series of plays that led to their 6-2 win on Friday night.
What was the difference?
“You need some breaks,” Rick Bowness said after the game. “Look at Mark’s goal, all of a sudden he’s coming around the net, he knocks it in. We haven’t had those breaks in a long time.”
If the explanation seems more practical than poetic, remember that the Jets have been outshooting and outchancing teams more often than not throughout their offensive slump. There’s an element of puck luck to Winnipeg’s struggles. Meanwhile, Calgary has made up ground in the standings (and won again later Friday night, staying within two points of the Jets.) Nothing comes easy for Winnipeg, nor is there much time to plan a postseason parade after a single win with six games to go in the regular season.
“We have to keep winning,” Bowness said. “We’ve got a very tough opponent coming in here on Sunday with the Devils coming in so it’s good to get (Connor, Scheifele, and Wheeler) on the scoreboard. They’ve all had plenty of scoring opportunities over the last couple of weeks and it just hasn’t gone in.”
The floodgates opened on a play that could have been a disaster.
Six minutes and 42 seconds into the first period, Brenden Dillon sized up the Red Wings’ 1-1-3 in the neutral zone and tried to beat it across the ice with a pass. Andrew Copp knocked it down, looked up ice for a counterattack, and then immediately saw Dillon take the puck right back. It was a hustle play — a recovery after a mistake — that put the puck on Pierre-Luc Dubois’ stick so that the Jets win could become history.
Thanks tips 🤚👁️ pic.twitter.com/g4c9qaDhLp
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) April 1, 2023
Dubois dumped, chased, beat his man, and recovered the puck for Scheifele. Scheifele sent it to Dillon at the point, Dillon fired a wrist shot, and then, with Dubois parked in front of the net, Connor deflected the shot out of mid-air and behind Hellberg for the 1-0 lead.
By the end of Winnipeg’s 6-2 win, fans would remind me on Twitter that all they ever wanted from Winnipeg during its slump was proof of effort. They got it early and often on Friday night at Canada Life Centre. For the Red Wings, it was a back-to-back and their third game in four nights. The Jets? It was on them to ignore that fact and keep their foot on the gas.
“You can’t sit back, there’s still lots of game. You can’t just kill the clock,” Scheifele said of the Jets’ focus after going up 3-0 in the first period. “We’ve got to keep playing. We’ve got to keep making passes and plays. That was the biggest thing. We can’t get away from our game at all.”
Asked what led to the offensive explosion, Scheifele credited Winnipeg’s commitment to making life difficult on Detroit’s defenders.
“We had a good forecheck,” he said. “I think that was the biggest thing. We made some plays, we held on to the puck, made them work in the D-zone. And when we do that, we’re a pretty hard team to play against.”
It was an interesting confirmation of Scheifele’s offensive vision that he detailed for us after Winnipeg’s loss in San Jose. Given that Bowness kept saying that Scheifele needs to shoot more often, the star forward’s vision of holding on to the puck to tire teams out seemed to be in direct conflict with his coach’s orders. Bowness’ postgame media appeared to confirm plenty of frustration with that vision but, in the days between the Jets’ 3-0 loss and their 6-2 win, Bowness was back in communicative form.
He moved Scheifele to wing on a line with Connor and Dubois, easing Scheifele’s defensive responsibilities and giving Scheifele two quality finishers to work with in the offensive zone. Given that Connor and Scheifele each scored a goal and an assist, it appeared to pay instant dividends. But right wing is an uncommon position for Scheifele; he told us post-game that he’s played centre all his life. One of the most important things Bowness did in moving Scheifele to wing, then, was consult with Scheifele about the change.
“As I told Mark, if you don’t think you’re getting in the game playing the wing, just give me a tug and we’ll make the quick switch,” Bowness said on Friday morning.
Scheifele credited Bowness’ consultative approach to the switch before heaping praise upon his linemates.
“Obviously it’s weird going to the wing but, like I said, to play with Dubie and KC that makes it easy,” said Scheifele. “We’re all guys that play offence and read off each other really well. I thought tonight it showed.”
Greasy garbage goals 🚮 pic.twitter.com/isoIScbDcE
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) April 1, 2023
The second major change Winnipeg made was re-establishing a second line of Ehlers, Wheeler, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Ehlers didn’t want to make a fuss about his third-line demotion, saying he just plays his game, choosing to put the focus on his teammates as Scheifele had done before him.
“I think we really feed off each other really well,” Ehlers said. “We have a lot of speed. They are both really smart guys. Vladdy is pretty fun to play with and I think Wheels can say the same. He’s in the right spots and reads the game really well. I think we have been able to create some pretty good chemistry in the three or four games that we have played together.”
All three players on that line finished the night with two points: Ehlers and Wheeler with a goal and an assist each and Namestnikov with two assists. Ehlers was flying all night, looking particularly dangerous orchestrating the first-unit power play, while Wheeler’s goal seemed to bring out the best in him later in the game. Namestnikov was the less spectacular gel that made the trio work, though, and made so many subtle plays that it was hard not to appreciate his game.
I love that decision on entry from a tired Vladislav Namestnikov.
He’d started to swing his stick at the puck just to knock it into the zone for a change but saw everyone back off of him. Gathered the puck up instead, gained control, gave his teammates a chance to catch up.
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) April 1, 2023
“I was talking to Nik about that today,” Bowness said. “They like playing with Vladdy. Everybody likes playing with Vladdy because of his hockey IQ. He’s smart. And they read off of each other really well. That’s the best Blake has skated in a while, so that was good to see, and I think he felt a lot better after that goal went in. It gave him a little extra jump. Get a weight off all their shoulders — Mark, KC, everybody.”
It’s clear that Detroit was an exhausted team, playing three games in four nights. It’s also clear that New Jersey poses a much bigger threat on Sunday and that Winnipeg’s upcoming games against Calgary (who trail the Jets by two points) and Nashville (who trail by five points but have three games in hand) will help decide the Jets’ postseason fate.
But the story of Winnipeg’s Friday night is that the Jets needed a win, they got that win, and some of the most important players on the team helped make sure it all came to be. They even did it without Josh Morrissey, who was a late scratch due to illness and who is expected to return to the lineup on Sunday.
“That was a big hole back there. You notice how much you miss him when he’s not there. But give those guys credit. (DeMelo) had a great game. Neal Pionk, that’s one of his best games. (Brenden Dillon) was really good. So was (Dylan) Samberg. They all did their job and they all picked up (the slack).”
That’s the power of Winnipeg controlling its playoff destiny. It doesn’t matter how the Jets win — it just matters that they do.
(Photo of Dylan Larkin and Mark Scheifele: Darcy Finley / NHLI via Getty Images)
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