During training camp for the Winnipeg Jets, one of the many changes Rick Bowness wanted to install was to get the team’s defencemen to be more involved in the rush and to contribute more offensively.
Watching from home as he recovers from COVID, he must have loved what he saw Wednesday night in Denver as Neal Pionk’s second goal of the game was the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in a see-saw affair.
The Jets scored the first goal for the third straight game and had a two-goal advantage at the first intermission.
But once again they had a second period letdown and the Avs scored three times in the middle frame, including twice in the period’s final four minutes to tie the game.
There was no scoring in the final frame, but Pionk ended it just 31 seconds into the extra period to give the Jets two points.
“It’s huge,” said Jets forward Mason Appleton. “Stanley Cup winners right there. We’re a 1-1 team. You never want to look at the standings early or whatever it is, but you don’t want to dip below .500.”
It was Pionk’s first career overtime goal and also his first career two-goal game.
“I was going far side,” Pionk said of the overtime winner. “I got a little lucky, but it was a good shot.”
Nikolaj Ehlers did not play after leaving the morning skate with what’s been termed as a nagging injury. Appleton was elevated to the top line in his place and recorded two assists, while getting the only helper on the game winning goal.
“It’s just kinda next guy up mindset with Nik leaving the ice early,” said Appleton. “We knew the lines were going to have to juggle a little bit.
“I thought we did a good job early and they picked their game up, and they had some good sustained O-zone later in that game, but I thought we did some good things, and it’s obviously fun playing with two very, very elite guys.”
After a dreadful end to the second period the Jets managed to get the momentum back in a hard-fought third period.
“For, what was it, 34 minutes, we were pretty good,” said associate coach Scott Arniel. “They got momentum, crowd got into it, they got going. We turned some pucks over in our end of the rink and they got it back. But the big thing, the message going into the third was we’re in a tie game on the road. Just stick to what we had done for most of the game.”
With Ehlers out, the Jets made changes on three of their four forward lines after Monday’s loss to the Dallas Stars. The Jets also switched up all three of their defensive pairings as Logan Stanley rode the pine to make room for Dylan Samberg’s season debut.
Jets newcomer Axel Jonsson-Fjallby made his Jets debut on the fourth line, but only received a little over six minutes of ice time.
Dylan DeMelo appeared in his 400th career NHL game.
The Jets only beat the Avalanche once all last season.
For the third straight game to start the season, the Jets opened the scoring, but this time it was not Mark Scheifele. Sam Gagner, who was only in the lineup because Ehlers was scratched due to injury, banged home a rebound on a power play just under seven minutes in.
Later in the frame during 4-on-4 action, Appleton led a break into the Avalanche zone and dropped a perfect pass to Neal Pionk who blasted it past Alexandar Georgiev to make it 2-0.
But just like in the first two games of the season, the second period was a problem.
Early in the frame, the Jets got hemmed in their own zone, unable to clear despite multiple opportunities and the Avalanche top line made them pay. Mikko Rantanen cashed in from the slot to make it 2-1.
Winnipeg was able to respond, however, as Cole Perfetti scored his first of the year off a great, patient feed from Blake Wheeler right before the halfway point of the second.
It seemed as if the Jets might be able to hold off the Avalanche, but the defending champs proved late in the period how quickly they can turn the tide.
In what felt very similar to their first goal, the Avalanche top line pinned the Jets in their own end for a long sequence, during which Pionk lost his stick. It resulted in a second goal for Rantanen, but the Avs weren’t done there.
After Appleton was called for a slashing penalty, the lethal Colorado power play went to work as Valeri Nichushkin buried his fifth goal of the season from in close on Connor Hellebuyck to tie the game heading to the third period.
The third period was fairly uneventful, aside from a two-minute stretch of 4-on-4 hockey. Neither team was able to generate much in terms of scoring chances, sending the game to overtime.
The extra session did not last long. After Rantanen ripped a shot wide of the net, MacKinnon was squeezed off the puck by Appleton, springing Pionk on a 2-on-1 with Adam Lowry. Pionk let one fly from the faceoff dot, pinging it in off the post for the game-winning goal.
The Jets (2-1) don’t have much time to celebrate the win as they visit the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in their first back-to-back of the season. Puck drop is just after 9 p.m., pregame coverage on 680 CJOB begins at 6:30 p.m.