A lights-out performance by Connor Hellebuyck and goals from some unexpected players helped lift the Winnipeg Jets to a 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the North Division first-round series against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday.
Hellebuyck made 32 saves on his 28th birthday and depth forward Dominic Toninato scored the game-winner in the third period to give the Jets the early series upper-hand.
Tucker Poolman scored the Jets’ first goal, while Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler both added empty netters.
It was Toninato’s first goal with the Jets and his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff goal.
“Probably one of the biggest for sure,” Toninato said. “It was my first goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so luckily enough it was the game-winner. So, yeah, it’s probably right up there at the top.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice certainly wasn’t surprised that some of their unsung heroes were big factors in the victory.
“We’ve just seen that so many times,” said Maurice. “That the skill in some ways cancels itself out. And it’s the grit and grind guys who go to the net, put a puck to the net, stand in front of the net. It’s their game all year long, and playoff hockey gets to become like their game, and they’re good at it.
“We played pretty good, right. So, we’re happy with our game, but I think we have better.”
The Jets pulled off the win without Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who both missed Game 1 with injuries.
It’s clear the Jets’ game plan is to play a physical brand against the Oilers. The Jets recorded a season-high 68 hits in Game 1, including 31 hits in the first period alone.
“If you’re running around trying to hit everything that moves, they’ll make two passes and all of a sudden it’s in the back of your net,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “I think sometimes we got a little bit caught up doing that in the regular season, and they were able to just dice us apart. So, we hit at the right times, and it’s an important part of our game.”
The Jets were outshot 33 to 22, but a big part of their success in Game 1 was thanks to limiting the Oilers’ chances off the rush. Connor McDavid was held off the game sheet entirely and was a minus-2 with two shots on goal.
“I just thought it was a good team game tonight,” said Hellebuyck. “Our details were right and our offensive game came when it needed to. It was a great team win tonight.”
Logan Stanley and Kristian Vesalainen both made their playoff debuts in the victory. Vesalainen had a couple of quality scoring chances, while Stanley had a game-high eight hits and it was his shot that was tipped in for eventual game-winning goal.
“I thought he was at the right speed for the game,” said Maurice. “You worry about the young players not understanding this game will get faster. The pressure you’re under is usually a little bit quicker, and he seemed to handle that really well.
“When he’s at the right pace of his game, he finds the hits an awful lot more.”
Right from puck drop, the Jets were finishing checks and laying into the speedy Oilers, taking every opportunity to establish themselves as the physically dominant team. The strong defensive work kept the Oilers from getting a single shot on goal until the 11:35 mark of the first period.
Not to be outdone physically, Edmonton’s Josh Archibald squared up Dylan DeMelo launching him into the boards. DeMelo was slow to get up and in noticeable pain as he sat back down on the bench to catch his breath.
As the horn sounded to end the first period, McDavid, upset about a hit behind the play from Neal Pionk, cross-checked Wheeler in the back, which had everyone on the ice grabbing a dance partner to sort out any aggression. McDavid took a few extra jabs at Pionk and anyone else who got involved making it clear the Oilers weren’t going to be bullied in the first taste of playoff hockey in the North Division.
The Oilers came flying out of the gate to start the second period, hemming the Jets’ third line in their own zone for more than a minute culminating with Edmonton’s best scoring chance. Leon Draisaitl caught some Jets forwards cheating out of the zone and found Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all alone in front.
Nugent-Hopkins settled down the German’s saucer pass and snapped the puck into the glove of a waiting Hellebuyck, keeping the game scoreless.
The Oilers struck first as Jesse Puljujärvi was the only player on the ice who knew where a bouncing puck was and it happened to be right in front of him. Puljujärvi snuck the puck just under Hellebuyck’s left arm for his first career playoff goal to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead after a flurry of shots and sustained opening pressure.
Winnipeg answered right back in a hurry with a first of their own capitalizing on Mike Smith’s struggle to control rebounds. Poolman crossed the blue line and dropped the puck to Wheeler who sent a low wrist shot on net. Poolman stuck with the play, sneaking behind the defence, and tapped in a juicy rebound on Winnipeg’s second shot of the period and Poolman’s first career playoff goal.
Midway through the third period, some confusion surrounding a point shot from Stanley saw a delayed reaction from the Winnipeg bench. Stanley, true to form, unleashed a heavy shot on net and Toninato was able to get his blade on the rising shot, deflecting the puck off the left post into the middle bar and back out into play. Toninato initially raised his arms, but play continued as everyone in the rink wasn’t sure if the puck went in.
The play continued into the Jets’ zone until the horn blared and the head referee confirmed the goal. Toninato was already back on the bench as his teammates cheered for the go-ahead goal and it appeared as if Hellebuyck yelled at Stanley that he’d scored his first point in his first career playoff game.
“The buzzer went and I thought there was a scrum by our bench,” said Stanley. “And as I got closer, the guys were celebrating, so I threw my arms up in the air and gave Dom (Toninato) a big hug. A big goal for us.”
Hellebuyck stood on his head all game and faced increasing pressure in the final few minutes as the Oilers pressed for the equalizer. Darnell Nurse dumped the puck in and a fortunate bounce off a referee’s skate made for an easy clear for the Jets.
Paul Stastny, who left the final regular season game briefly with an apparent injury, centered the second line between Andrew Copp and Kristian Vesalainen. Vesalainen and Dominic Toninato, who both haven’t played much this year slotted into the lineup replacing the injured Dubois and Ehlers.
The puck landed on Kyle Connor’s stick who made no mistake sending the insurance goal into an empty net. Not long after, Wheeler cut around Ethan Bear potting the fourth of the night with Mike Smith watching from the bench.
Game 2 goes Friday in Edmonton with the pre-game show at 6 p.m. on 680 CJOB and the puck dropping shortly after 8 p.m.