WINNIPEG – On a night like this, two plays in particular stand out.
The kind that define the ‘total team effort.’
The kind the Winnipeg Jets will have to win now and for the rest of the year.
One: Blake Wheeler racing back defensively – the proverbial jets humming at full tilt – diving to break up dangerous chance and turning it back the other way. Two: With less than a minute to play in the nerviest of one-goal games, Tyler Myers lurching back in the blue paint, preserving the win with not one, but two game-saving stops with his bare flesh.
“It was a desperation play,” Myers said. “They got the puck to the net and I was fortunate to get a face on it.”
“Whatever he had to, right?” added the head coach, Paul Maurice.
Each and every one of them brought the same intensity.
The kind that delivers a victory.
Bryan Little scored the only goal on a penalty shot in the first period, and Connor Hellebuyck made 30 saves for his first NHL shutout as the Winnipeg Jets handed the Pittsburgh Penguins a 1-0 defeat Sunday at MTS Centre.
“I go into every game expecting a shutout and then dealing with what happens in the game,” Hellebuyck said of his mindset. “I definitely have been wanting this milestone to come because it essentially means I played a perfect game. Tonight with the help of Tyler Myers I finally achieved it.”
Little scored on a penalty shot at 14:46 of the first period, rifling a shot over the flared glove hand of Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff. In doing so, he became the first player in franchise history to score on a penalty shot on home ice.
Little was awarded the shot after racing in alone and being hooked up by Ben Lovejoy, who was caught flat-footed at the defensive blue line.
“It was a great pass by (Jacob Trouba) to make the play where I got hauled down,” he said. “I didn’t know much about this goalie but I knew I was going to shoot glove side pretty much before I went. … I was either going to go low or high, but I saw more room up above his glove when I skated in.”
Little was at it again early in the middle frame, slinging one off the near post after gathering the feed from Blake Wheeler. The Jets were victims of the bar thrice on the night, as Ben Chiarot struck iron early in the first unloading that 107.7-mile per hour slap shot, while Wheeler delivered a glancing blow on a partial break late in the second.
“Really underrated two-way player,” Maurice said of Little and his team-leading four shots on goal. “His compete defensively, for a guy that can produce numbers, really takes some pressure off the other centre ice men. He carries a big load here and since I’ve been here, he’s been a real good, all-around two-way player.”
At the other end, Hellebuyck was authoring his finest performance of his young career. In a 45-second span, he robbed two of the NHL’s most prolific marksmen – Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel – in tight, once with the right pad, and the next with the backside of his paddle hand, to keep the Jets in front.
With the win, Hellebuyck improves to 6-3-0 on the year.
“He looks the same way each night,” Maurice said. “He seems to have a really solid foundation to his game. You’re not wondering about his positioning or why he’s playing a certain play that way. He’s really consistent in his approach and how he looks in his net. And he stops the puck, man.”
The Jets were nearly perfect the rest of the way, allowing only a single shot in the first 10 minutes of the final frame before the Pens made a late push.
Drew Stafford had a glorious chance to put this one bed midway through the third period, but Zatkoff came up with an incredible save, diving across to rob the newly promoted winger, who had an open net to shoot for.
It didn’t matter. Wheeler, Myers, Hellebuyck and host of others brought it home – at home – in front of more than 15,000 on a chilly Winnipeg night.
LATE HITS: Adam Lowry made his first appearance with the Jets after a four-game stint with American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose. Lowry finished the night with three hits in nearly 17 minutes of ice time, holding Evgeni Malkin off the shot clock.
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com