The Rick Bowness era in Winnipeg is off to a good start, though the new head coach wasn’t even in the building to see it.
The team announced the 67-year-old tested positive for COVID-19 just a few hours before puck drop, but his team prevailed anyway with associate coach Scott Arniel running the bench, pulling away late in a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers.
“It’s huge,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. “This team played the right way. That was a great team win tonight. We needed everyone and we got everyone. It’s a great building step and I think the character in this locker room is just going to continue to show.”
It was the Jets season opener, but the Rangers already had two wins under their belt. Hellebucyk was in fine form, and finished the game with 40 saves as the Jets were outshot 41-34.
The Jets scored once in the first and held the lead for more than 33 minutes before the Rangers tied the game early in the final frame.
But the Jets scored three times in the final five minutes to seal their first victory of the campaign with the fourth line supplying the game-winning goal with a little more than four minutes left.
Mark Scheifele scored two goals, and Nikolaj Ehlers recorded a pair of assists, while Kyle Connor had an empty netter as he scored in a season opener for the fifth straight year.
“Obviously Bucky (Hellebuyck) made a lot of big saves,” said Scheifele. “We just had guys bailing each other out. I think that’s the biggest thing. When a guy made a mistake we had guys backing them up. Obviously, we’ll have to fix that for the next one, but all-in-all a big win, and happy with that one.”
The Rangers took the game over in the middle frame as they outshot Winnipeg 21-7 in the period, but failed to get one past Hellebuyck. And then the Jets regained their first period form in the third.
“The biggest thing is that we stumbled tonight, but we found a way to win a hockey game,” said Arniel. “This league is about winning hockey games. It was our first of the year, that was New York’s third. For us – it’s a lesson learned is that when we play the right way, for hopefully three periods the next game instead of two, that it’s a little bit easier on all of us.
“Everybody was really good in the first and everybody was really good in the third. You could probably just throw a big blanket around everybody in the second period, and we’ll just wash that one away.”
Arniel said he found out around mid-afternoon that he’d be making his Jets head coaching debut.
“Rick wasn’t feeling great and called me there around 3:30-4:00,” said Arniel. “And just was, obviously it hit him pretty hard. And I talked to Chevy (Kevin Cheveldayoff) and he came in and pretty much told us what was going on.”
The Rangers would get the first great chance to score when Artemi Panarin stepped out of the penalty box and was sprung on a breakaway. He tried to go high on Hellebuyck but the shot glanced off the shaft of Hellebuyck’s stick and floated over the net.
Not long after that, the home side got on the board thanks to the top line. Ehlers won a puck battle behind the Rangers net and fed it towards the slot. Kyle Connor let the pass go through his legs right to the stick of Scheifele, who buried it past Jaroslav Halak for Winnipeg’s first goal of the season.
The Jets played with great pace in the opening 20 minutes, skating with fresh legs, powered by the adrenaline of a home opener against a team that just played the night before.
But in the second period, the visitors controlled the pace. Winnipeg got pinned in their own end for long stretches but Hellebuyck was a brick wall in net, stopping all 21 shots New York threw his way in the frame.
Just under four minutes into the third, the Rangers finally solved Hellebuyck. Dryden Hunt was left alone right in front of the Jets net, got a great pass from Vincent Trocheck and roofed it to tie the game.
Winnipeg would spend much of the period just holding on but with just 4:25 to go, their fourth line would give them the lead.
David Gustafsson won a battle behind the net, got the puck to Saku Maenalanen who found Sam Gagner alone on the doorstep. His first attempt was turned aside by Halak but he buried the rebound to send the home crowd into a frenzy.
Any hope of a Rangers comeback disappeared when former Jet Jacob Trouba took a delay-of-game penalty, leading to quite the reaction from the Winnipeg crowd.
Scheifele buried his second of the game on the ensuing power play to put the game away, finishing off a great feed from Pierre-Luc Dubois. Connor added an empty-netter with 20 seconds left for good measure.
Hellebuyck finished with a whopping 40 saves in the victory. Next up for the Jets is a date with the Stars in Dallas on Monday. The pregame show begins on 680 CJOB at 5:30 p.m., with puck drop just after 7:30 p.m.