WINNIPEG – Sunday’s game at MTS Centre came right down to the wire after the resilient road team clawed back from a 5-1 deficit.
In the end, the Winnipeg Jets held on in what was a nail-biting 5-4 victory over the Central Division rival Minnesota Wild.
Drew Stafford scored twice, while Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Nikolaj Ehlers added singles in the win. Michael Hutchinson made 26 saves.
Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu, Justin Fontaine and Zach Parise scored for the Wild.
With an assist on Little’s first-period marker, Blake Wheeler established a new personal and franchise best, registering at least a point in eight consecutive games to start the season.
“It just takes one goal to change the momentum of a game,” Wheeler said.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They were on a back-to-back, down 5-1, and they kept their foot on the gas and changed the game. It’s never over in this league. That’s a good lesson for us early on.”
The visitors opened the scoring just 10 seconds in, but the Jets fought back and on the strength of two quick goals, took a 2-1 lead within minutes of the icebreaker.
Little tied the game in the most unconventional way possible, finishing off Andrew Ladd’s pass by crashing the net, generating a rebound and thrusting the puck past Kuemper with the brunt of his lid.
2:05 later, Ladd gave the Jets their first lead, deftly depositing the garbage in front after a shot from the far circle was knocked down near the blue paint.
Hurtling down the wing on a 2-on-1 with Mark Scheifele, Ehlers put the Jets up by two at 12:12, firing a shot blocker side for his third of the year.
Shots on goal favoured the Jets 14-9 after one period of play, and a similar start to the second produced immediate offence.
Stafford scored two in 3:38 to put the Jets up 5-1 before the Wild recorded a shot in the middle frame. Kuemper was pulled between goals after allowing four goals on 18 shots, but it didn’t stop the bleeding.
“He was outstanding,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said of the returning forward. “He’s found what will make a player very valuable – a guy that can play in that role and still produce [offensively]. We’ve got some offence off the Lowry line, and we believe we will off Little and Scheifele on a pretty consistent basis, but for him to take on a pretty big shutdown role and play like this… He hasn’t cheated for any of that to happen to him.”
Rifling a shot between the blocker and the body, Stafford scored the first at 51 seconds, warming up the sold-out crowd of 15,294. The second was a thing of beauty, as the right-shot winger cut to the middle and split the D before pulling off a nifty move in tight, plunging a shot over the glove for the prettiest of the five.
“I’ve been a little bit fortunate,” Stafford said. “A couple good bounces, a couple good breaks, but it’s all about getting pucks on net and trying to generate as much as possible.
“We’re going to be relied on for some secondary scoring this year. So far, so good.”
Added Maurice: “I’m happy for him because you’ve got a guy that’s trying to recover some of that offence that he had when he was younger. [For me] to say, ‘That’s fine, but I also want you to be really responsible defensively,’ I’m really happy for him. We absolutely have to have that from that line.”
The Wild weren’t going away, scoring a pair in 38 seconds to make a game of it.
Koivu’s power-play goal cut the deficit to three, and at 14:55, an uncovered Fontaine jarred a loose puck back door, setting the score at 5-3.
After 40 minutes, the Jets had a 27-18 lead in shots and a heavily tilted 37-18 edge in shots attempts.
The Wild made it a one-goal game 10:41 as Parise stole the puck behind the net and banked a wraparound shot off the skate of Mark Stuart and in. It was an agonizing goal for the 15,294 in attendance, as the puck crawled between the legs of Hutchinson and across the line, as if it were in slow motion.
But the Jets held on.
“In that period of hockey, our positioning was fine, we just weren’t driving our legs,” Maurice said. “We had pucks on our stick that we turned over that caused a problem that we recovered too fine. … You’ve got to learn — and we will learn over the course of the year —how to move our legs when we have the lead. That’s for me where we were good, at times, and when we weren’t.
“Offensively, we were quick. We moved the puck well and were efficient. We put pucks to the net and I thought we were on it.”
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com