No, really. Everything.
It will go in the books as a 5-2 win over the visiting Arizona Coyotes, but will be remembered for much more than that. Like a talented young rookie recording his first-career hat trick; the shorthanded breakaway – by a defenceman, no less – in the most impossible situation, down five skaters to three; or the goal from centre ice, raising the roof like no other all year.
In short – it was a blast.
Nikolaj Ehlers (first-career hat trick), Blake Wheeler (three assists) and Dustin Byfuglien (two goals, one assist) combined for nine points, while Connor Hellebuyck made 32 saves.
“(If) you go into the break [losing] four straight, you’re feeling pretty low,” Wheeler said. “Now we can re-group, get healthy and come back with a lot of enthusiasm for the second half.”
Ehlers got things rolling with a power-play goal at 6:55. With Byfuglien in front getting a piece of a Blake Wheeler point shot, Ehlers jumped on the rebound at the bottom of the right circle, popping it past Arizona goalie Louis Domingue for the PPG.
Ehlers, Wheeler and Mark Scheifele debuted as a line at Sunday’s practice, and while the trio expected a bit of rust with their pivot just now returning injury, there was nothing of the sort.
“There’s a skill level there to make those plays, but it’s speed at the end of the day,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “All three of those guys can skate and when they learn to find and trust each other a little more, they’ll look even faster.”
The rookie put the Jets up by two with a beauty at 13:53. Showing some incredible hand-eye, Ehlers batted the puck out of mid air on a 2-on-1 with Wheeler, bumping it off the post, off the goalie and in for his 11th of the year.
A Byfuglien shot south of Graham gave the Jets a commanding three-goal advantage early in the middle frame. Just across centre, Byfuglien wound up, faked the dump and hammered a shot on goal. Domingue got a piece of it with the right pad, but not enough as it trickled across the red.
It was a heady play by the all-star defenceman, who was just getting warmed up.
“Every once in a while you’ve just got to try it. You never know what can happen. Tonight was the night,” Byfuglien said. “They had four guys back and everyone was just waiting for the rim. I decided to turn on it.”
Ehlers completed the hat trick at 14:31, rifling a shot top shelf, blocker side, for the moment he’ll never forget.
“It feels good,” he said. “It’s awesome that I got the three goals but it’s more important that we ended off before the break with a win.”
As he did on the previous two, Wheeler recorded the assist.
“It’s tough to find [that chemistry] and it doesn’t happen often,” Ehlers said. “I think we played a great game today.”
Wheeler now has 48 points (13G, 35A) and is tied for fifth in league scoring.
“Nik was blessed with some great ability around the net,” he said. “I mean, you saw what he did in junior coming up. He’s starting to come into his own a little bit. The only challenge is finding him and trying to get him in those open spaces because he’s lethal around the net.”
Added Byfuglien: “Kid scored three goals. There’s not much you can say about that – he’s good. He’s been good all year. He’s just finding his way. It’s not easy to make that step and come right into the NHL. I’m happy for him. Hopefully he can keep this going for us.”
After Brad Richardson got the Coyotes on the board, the Jets got it right back – and how! Killing a 5-on-3 power play, Byfuglien took a feed from Tyler Myers and lumbered in alone. The big man made no mistake, beating out the defender and firing a shot over the glove to make it 5-1 Winnipeg.
“A defenceman on a shorthanded breakaway on a 5-on-3 power play? That’s got to be a first,” Wheeler chuckled.
Anders Lindback took over between the pipes in the third period. Anthony Duclair added one in garbage time, but by that point, it was too little, too late.
“It’s pretty big for us to go into the break on a good note,” Byfuglien said. “We know that when we come back there’s work to be done, but we can at least have a little smile on our face. We need to come back fresh and put our work boots back on.”
Byfuglien will be representing the Central Division at the All-Star Game later this week. For everyone else, it’s time to rest up and gear up for the unofficial second half, which begins next Tuesday vs. Dallas.
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com