WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets understand better than anyone that it's a long road back after losing the ground they did over the past week, but after knocking off the Dallas Stars on Tuesday at MTS Centre, they can sleep easy knowing they've taken a step in the right direction.
They looked, as Head Coach Paul Maurice put it during his post-game conference, as they should.
A little star power doesn't hurt, either.
Eighteen-year-old Patrik Laine scored goals No. 24, 25 and 26 for his third-career hat trick to lead the Jets past the Stars 5-2, snapping a four-game losing streak for the club.
Laine broke a 2-2 tie with 5:07 to play before scoring into the empty net from 150 feet out with just over a minute left.
Video: DAL@WPG: Laine shows off quick hands for second goal
"We had a serious meeting with the team after the (Tampa) game and we just figured that we have to work hard and be pretty simple on the ice, and we managed to do that pretty well today," Laine said.
"It's always nice to score. It was a huge game for me and linemates and the whole team. These last four games haven't been that good, so it was nice to have a game like this."
On the winner, the rookie showed some quick hands, toe-dragging at the edge of the circle after Mark Scheifele won the offensive-zone draw, and with a quick flick on the forehand, he beat Niemi with a laser over the left shoulder.
"That's the difference: Pure talent. You go back, two years ago and how hard we had to grind to crash one in," Maurice said. "When you're assessing Patty Laine and where he's at, if he didn't score three goals, I could still have come up here and said that was his best game of the season. All the other pieces of his game were 'NHL,' right on. … I didn't put him on the ice because he had two (goals) and I thought we could get him three, I was just trying to win the game. I had him on the ice because he was right. It wasn't about development. I wasn't trying to make him feel good, I had him out there because it was the best game he'd played."
Video: POSTGAME | Paul Maurice
Laine finished with a game-high six shots on goal, and was a physical force, too, finishing his checks and winning one-on-one battles at both ends. His 26 goals put him one back of Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews for the rookie scoring lead.
In four fewer games.
No one, including the coach, is surprised about that after having seen his kid explode in the first five months of his career.
"I only saw the overheard view from the bench and I couldn't find the puck when it went past the goalie," Maurice said of the winning goal.
"That release is extraordinary."
Blake Wheeler (EN, in similar fashion to Laine) and Joel Armia scored the others for Winnipeg, while Connor Hellebuyck made 34 saves.
The Jets will now embark on a four-game, Eastern Conference road trip before pausing for the CBA-mandated five-day bye week.
"It's two teams fighting for their lives," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said of the playoff-like atmosphere between these two divisional counterparts. "This was a playoff team last year and they have a really talented group over there. You could feel that they were pushing for the same thing that we were pushing for. It made it a playoff-feel game. A lot of intensity, a lot of chances. That's fun hockey."
The Jets opened up a two-goal lead before the 10-minute mark of the second period, but the Stars answered right back with two in under five minutes to even the late in the middle frame.
Just 1:05 after Armia gave the Jets a commanding 2-0 lead, Jamie Benn - uncovered at the side of the net - beat Hellebuyck five-hole after getting the feed from Jason Spezza. Tyler Seguin then evened things up with a power-play goal at 13:35 as he fired a seeing-eye wrister through traffic, cleanly beating Hellebuyck low on the blocker side.
Besides that, the Jets had one of their better efforts in recent memory, and it was needed.
Video: POSTGAME | Patrik Laine
"We battled hard, competed, (we) blocked shots. … This one was a hard-fought, 2-2 going into the third, playoff-type, must-win game," Maurice said. "Us having more pressure in the way we played at home and recently, it was a great game."
Laine drew first blood for the Jets with his 24th of the year off a great feed from Andrew Copp at 15:04 of the opening frame. On a 2-on-1 created by Scheifele, Copp outwaited the fallen defender, Jamie Oleksiak, and rolled wide before delivering a marvellous pass across the goalmouth. Laine made no mistake, driving it home at the lip of the blue paint.
Video: DAL@WPG: Laine buries Copp's dish to open the scoring
The Jets opened up a two-goal lead at 7:38 as Armia picked up his fifth of the year with the wrister from the high slot. Shawn Matthias took the puck down the right wall before feathering a backhand pass to the middle and right on the tape of his linemate.
"You just have to be ready from the start," Laine said. "Maybe some of the games I wasn't ready, like Tampa. Tonight, I felt it right away that I was on my game. It's way easier to (play) and get those scoring chances when you are."
- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com