WINNIPEG — Say so long to the dress rehearsal. From this point and on, the stakes will be considerably higher.
Some elements of rust were inevitable as the Winnipeg Jets played an actual hockey game for the first time since March 11, and while it’s essential to remember this was merely an exhibition game, there were some themes that stood out after a 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
It’s impossible for goaltending to not be a story line as the Jets get set to face the Calgary Flames in the best-of-five, play-in round.
In the red corner, Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward may know he’s going to be between the pipes in Game 1, but he’s still not ready to share the information publicly whether it will be Cam Talbot or David Rittich.
In the blue corner, the Jets have no such debate.
Hellebuyck in Vezina form
Connor Hellebuyck is the Vezina Trophy front-runner and for good reason.
If there was any concern that Hellebuyck might need a bit of additional time to find his form, that should be alleviated after Wednesday’s performance as he finished with 37 saves.
The Jets were making life a bit more difficult than it needed to be during the first period as they struggled with puck management and turned the puck over far too often, but Hellebuyck was there to bail his teammates out.
That’s a phrase that’s been typed on multiple occasions this season, but it had to be reassuring for the Jets to basically see Hellebuyck in mid-season form.
“Connor was outstanding,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “He looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
Whether it was stopping Bo Horvat on a rebound chance, being in perfect position to stop a Tanner Pearson redirection, or denying Brock Boeser on a breakaway, Hellebuyck served notice that he’s going to be tough to beat when the real games begin.
“I thought it was great, being able to get to that playoff battle mentality and that battle level,” said Hellebuyck. “So this game was not just an exhibition for me, it was getting that battle intensity up.”
Naturally, the Jets will spend some time over the next few days focusing on the importance of taking better care of the puck.
One thing they won’t be the least bit worried about is whether their elite goalie will be ready to answer the bell.
Ehlers gets going
Only Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Colorado Avalanche (31) and Carter Rowney (26) of the Anaheim Ducks have a longer active playoff drought than Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers, who has seven assists in 21 career post-season games.
As I’ve stated before, while this is a fact, it’s not an indictment of Ehlers’ ability, and any suggestion he doesn’t have what it takes to perform on the big stage is nothing but a hot-air narrative.
While Ehlers has downplayed the significance of that statistic when asked about it, you can be sure he’s looking forward to getting rid of that goose egg in the goal column.
His second-period goal Wednesday won’t count on that front, but it came on the type of play that is likely to lead to Ehlers scoring multiple goals when the games matter most.
After defenceman Josh Morrissey started the play with a smart outlet pass, Ehlers drove to the far post in transition and was quick to pounce on a rebound after a hard, low shot from line mate Patrik Laine.
This is the type of thing Ehlers has done all year long, using his speed and going to the hard areas. That’s why Jets head coach Paul Maurice is expecting Ehlers to break through.
“It’s a five-game series, so there’s not a lot of time to do it. But his game has changed this year,” said Maurice. “He’s harder on pucks, he drives the net, he’s competing at a different level than he ever has before, so I think he’s a goal scorer in the playoffs for sure.”
There was an element of concern when Ehlers left practice early last week and then spent time with the second group the day after, but if he was dealing with a minor ailment, he had shown no signs of any lingering effects.
However, just before the mid-way point of the third period, Ehlers got tangled up with Canucks forward Adam Gaudette and he went down the tunnel.
Maurice made sure to say his departure was “100 per cent precautionary” and that he expected Ehlers to be a full participant in the Jets’ practice on Friday after the team uses Thursday as a day off.
Jack is jumping
Jets forward Jack Roslovic was noticeable for the right reasons Wednesday and that could be a sign of things to come.
Roslovic chipped in an assist with a beautiful no-look, backhand pass to Dmitry Kulikov when it looked like he might have a clear path to the net.
The 2015 first-rounder also showcased his speed and skill on several other shifts throughout the contest, and after setting career-bests for goals (12), assists (17) and points (29), Roslovic could be primed for a productive playoff.
The duo of Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp is known for being able to generate plenty of time in the offensive zone on the cycle, and Roslovic has the potential to be a strong finisher on that unit, to go along with his play making.
Secondary scoring is a must for teams to go deep, and given the responsibility the trio will have on the defensive side of the equation, chipping in some additional offence would help take some of the pressure off the top two lines.
“I don’t look at that as just a shutdown line, they can do it because they’re built to do it. But there’s some offence — for sure — to be had,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “You can use them to check and you can play them against the heavy line too. That frees your other guys from having to do that. It’s a very versatile group.”
Don’t worry about the D
Yes, there were some shaky moments early — including a pair of turnovers by Neal Pionk on his first shift — but again, it’s the first real game action for this group since early March.
While the Jets struggled defensively for a chunk of the season, they did a better job as the season moved along and this unheralded bunch is eager to attack the narrative that the D-corps could be viewed as a weak link.
The Jets lost a lot of offence and some considerable bite with the overhaul of the blue line, but they got a pair of goals on Wednesday from Tucker Poolman and Kulikov.
They also got some physical play from Nathan Beaulieu, who levelled Zack MacEwen in the first period.
The top pairing of Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo are going to need to log plenty of important minutes in a shutdown role, but as Maurice said during training camp, he feels a lot better about the group than he did on the first day of training camp.
And for good reason.
One of the criticisms of Maurice during his tenure with the Jets is that he’s often leaned too heavily on his top guns and hasn’t used his fourth line enough.
Some of that is related to personnel, but he’s got confidence in the line of Nick Shore, Mathieu Perreault and Mason Appleton, and on Wednesday it showed — as all three players were above 11:26 in ice time and combined for four shots on goal and three hits.
Of course, building a four-goal cushion helped on that front, but it won’t be a surprise to see those players routinely at (or at least near) double digits, especially since Perreault is on the second power-play unit and both Shore and Appleton are used on the penalty kill.
Perreault was limited to 49 games this season because of injury, but he looks like he’s energised, while Appleton is an emerging player who has shown he can also play up the lineup when called upon.
This line will be asked to do more than just tread water and not get scored on. They could also chip in offensively and create some momentum by creating some chaos on the forecheck.