CHICAGO, IL - What is it about the Chicago Blackhawks that brings out the best in the Winnipeg Jets?
"It must be a matchup thing," captain Blake Wheeler said after another intense, back-and-forth battle
"We always look forward to these matchups because we like to see how we stack up against the best and they certainly are."
The Jets, who are looking for legitimacy in the tight Western Conference playoff race, know that in order to make a push and make these final 31 games meaningful, they have to take care of business in their own division.
Tonight, it was just as much about that as it was about making a statement - that they will never go quietly. Not here, not anywhere.
Andrew Copp and Bryan Little scored 32 seconds apart in the final five minutes of the third period, and Mark Scheifele scored into the empty net with 2:03 to play, as the Jets knocked off the Blackhawks for a fourth straight time this year, 5-3 on Thursday at the United Center.
Five different Jets had multi-point efforts, including Copp and Little, who had two points (1G, 1A) apiece to pace the visitors offensively. Patrik Laine and Shawn Matthias had Winnipeg's other two goals, while Connor Hellebuyck was exceptional in goal, stopping 38 of 41 shots to pick his first win three weeks.
Video: WPG@CHI: Little picks the corner with wicked wrister
The Jets are now only three points back of the Calgary Flames for the second of two wild-card playoff spots. The St. Louis Blues, who currently occupy the top wild-card seed, have 53 points as well, but have played three fewer games.
"We want the games against the teams that we're chasing to be meaningful," said Head Coach Paul Maurice.
"This was a really big win for our team."
With the Jets trailing 3-2, Copp redirected Josh Morrissey's point shot past Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling at 15:57 to tie the game, giving him nine on the year and his fourth in the past five games. Then, at 16:29, Little cruised down the right side and rifled a wicked shot top shelf, putting the Jets back in front after having a 2-0 lead erased earlier in the game.
Scheifele found the empty net off a great pass by Copp just 1:28 later.
Prior to their past two games, the Blackhawks were the NHL's ultimate closers, going 78-0-5 over the past two-and-a-half seasons when leading after two periods.
In the past 48 hours alone, they're 0-2.
"We had to [come back]," Wheeler, who had one assist and four shots in just under minutes of ice time, said post-game. "We're in a tough spot, obviously, with all the noise around and the tough losses - and the last two were really tough - I think for the bulk of it, we've liked our game. Working hard and trying this time of year is not enough. You've got to get results, but you've got to start somewhere. This is a great way to go into a break because these games are just going to ramp up after the break."
The Hawks outshot the Jets 14-12 in the second and carried a one-goal lead into the final frame, but the Little said the Jets were a confident team entering the third.
And why not? They've been here before against this very same opponent, after all.
Video: POSTGAME | Bryan Little
"We knew that if we stuck to the game plan and played the right way, we were going to get some opportunities to score. That's what happened," Little said. "We didn't come out and blow the doors off in the third, but we had the most of it when they made mistakes."
Little now has 13 goals - including two game-winners - and 26 points in 29 games this year.
Chicago surrendered the first two goals before getting one back on a power play late in the opening period before tying it up early in the second.
With Mark Stuart out of the play thanks to a scuffle with Markus Kruger, Nick Schmaltz walked out of the corner and ripped one from a sharp angle, short side on Hellebuyck for the equalizer.
Tanner Kero gave the Hawks their first lead of the night off a give-and-go with Patrick Kane with 3:23 to play in the middle frame. Kero, who started the play with a terrific defensive effort in the neutral zone, got the puck back at the right circle and put a sneaky shot through the five-hole for his fourth of the campaign.
Hellebuyck was dialled in from that point forward, stopping all nine shots he faced in the third period - including a beauty on Jonathan Toews just prior to Copp's equalizer - to give the Jets a chance.
Video: POSTGAME | Paul Maurice
"I worked on the things I needed to work on," Hellebuyck said of his mindset over the past four games while Ondrej Pavelec tended the twine.
Hellebuyck faced 18 shots in the first period alone, but said he wasn't fazed by the abnormally heavy workload.
"I'm fresh and I've been practicing a while, so I was ready to play. I had the nerves going again and it's been a while for that.
"These are huge points and it doesn't matter what team we're playing, we've got to continue to grow our team and continue to get points."
Added Maurice: "That was a simple game plan by Chicago. Everything went to the net and they're not a team that does that too often. They're looking for seams; they're looking for that extra play because they can make them, right? He looked solid, controlled the front. It was a really good game for him."
The Jets went on the attack after surviving an early push, and 6:15, they drew first blood with a power-play goal off some beautiful stick in tight.
After getting the puck from Nikolaj Ehlers, Little made a great pass at the right circle, finding Laine between the dots, cocked and ready for the one-timer. The rookie made no mistake, blazing it past Darling for his 22nd of the year and first since returning from a concussion.
Video: WPG@CHI: Laine buries one-timer on the power play
That sense of anticipation you get when Laine is on the ice just doesn't get old, now, does it? Did anyone think he was going to miss? The puck was in before Darling even knew what hit him. When you're a sniper like Laine, the puck tends to find you in situations like that, and on this one, all Little had to do was put in the rookie's wheelhouse and wait that split-second before celebrating.
"He was back to looking normal tonight," Maurice said of the rookie, who is now off to attend to his first NHL All-Star Game this weekend in Los Angeles.
"He had some good looks."
The Jets weren't finished, either, creating a two-goal cushion with a hard-working goal on the very next shift.
Jacob Trouba's point shot went off the leg of Blackhawks defenceman Brian Campbell in front, and slowly rolled toward the goal line. But before it could cross, or potentially be knocked away, Matthias made sure, slamming it home…
The goals came just 42 seconds apart.
Duncan Keith got the Hawks on the board with a PPG of their own at 13:07, and just five seconds into a Nic Petan penalty. With Artem Anisimov planted in the blue paint, Keith fired a slapper clean past Hellebuyck from the top of the left circle for his fourth of the year.
- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com