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Winnipeg Jets reaping rewards after buying into team defense

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WINNIPEG — There was a time in Winnipeg where a one-goal lead would end in a one-goal loss. A time when no lead was safe and it was oddly better to see the Jets trying to climb back from behind than leading heading down the home stretch.

The Jets have learned much since those days, as evidenced by their top spot in the Central Division.

A 90-second 6-on-4 to close out Sunday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks highlighted a new shift in how the Jets conduct their business on the ice.

The above scenario may have spelled doom more often than not in years gone by, but Sunday illuminated how the Jets have been able to overcome those demons and forge ahead with a new philosophy that deploys calmness instead of frantic, poise instead of instability.

The Jets simply bore down when times became tough late in Sunday’s game. Those 90 seconds showed the evolution of the maturity within the team’s defensive structure. They didn’t allow a single shot to touch All-Star goalie Connor Hellebuyck and time simply expired for the Canucks, who couldn’t solve Winnipeg’s riddle.

“I think we’re able to play in those tight games, those low-scoring games and feel we can win those,” said defenseman Josh Morrissey, who has been the Jets best blueliner this season. “I think that’s been a big growth point for our time.”

Indeed.

Winnipeg’s buy-in defensively has ushered in some outstanding results.

Hellebuyck has been nothing short of spectacular between the pipes for the Jets this season, with his recent All-Star nod a testament to an overall turnaround that went from him coming into the season as the No. 2 to the Michigan native being mentioned in part of any conversation that includes the name Vezina.

While the Jets have benefitted from timely saves from their No. 1, Hellebuyck has benefitted from the five in front of him.

No starting goalie in the NHL has seen less high-danger shot attempts than Hellebuyck.

Not Andrei Vasilevskiy. Not Sergei Bobrovsky. Not Tuukka Rask.

“That’s part of the thing where we want to limit the chances against… limiting that second and third opportunity… sort of by not panicking in those situations when a scrum happens or a chance against happens and being able to have some poise and sort it out, so to speak,” Morrissey said.

[Winnipeg Jets have finally arrived]

The buy-in from the fifth youngest team in the NHL, and one that scores more goals than all but three other NHL outfits, is remarkable.

“I think they have a real strong understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing (defensively),” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after Sunday’s win. “We’re still young in just age on some guys, but the overall structure their understanding’s good. I think the back end has really helped. You take two centers (Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry) out of your lineup it puts an awful lot of stress on your defense.”

Maurice has spoken at length about the reasons he feels his team has figured out the defensive aspects of the game of hockey. He touched on part of the equation on Sunday.

“Having six NHL defencemen makes a difference,” Maurice said, alluding to the fact the Jets spent very little time healthy on the blue line last season. “Being healthy on the back end makes a difference. They control an awful lot of the play. (We’ve got a ) goaltender who’s got a lot of confidence in the pipes. And I go back to center ice. We’ve asked Blake (Wheeler) and Andrew Copp to be really strong and they have been.”

Even the team’s most offensive and offensively gifted player is seeing the light.

“As a team, it doesn’t matter if we’re chasing or leading, we want to play the same game,” said Patrik Laine, the Finnish phenom who leads the Jets with 21 goals this season. “We want to play tight defense and give them nothing and try to be patient. We can’t open up our game.”

Laine, who played his 100th NHL game only recently, has stumbled at times this season. His offensive capabilities haven’t left him, even if his confidence has at times this year, but he’s had little choice but to work on the game played in his own zone.

And the 19-year-old seems to have a keen understanding of what lies ahead for the Jets as they grind toward their second playoff berth since relocating from Atlanta in 2011.

“It’s going to be like this for the next couple of months but everybody here in this locker room is comfortable with that kind of game and that’s the reason why we’re winning,” Laine said. “We’re a tight defensive team and we’ve got to score on the few chances that we get.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Playoff Buzzer: Two series headed to Game 7 after Jones, Marchand star for respective teams

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  • Brad Marchand had three points to help the Boston Bruins force a Game 7 on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Martin Jones made 58 saves and Tomas Hertl scored shorthanded in double overtime to also set a Game 7 date Tuesday between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. 

Bruins 4, Maple Leafs 2 (Series tied 3-3)

The Maple Leafs had a chance to rid themselves of their demons when it comes to the Bruins. Instead, they’ll have to face them head on in Game 7 for the third time in six years on Tuesday. Brad Marchand had a three-point game, including two goals, as the Bruins ensured TD Garden will see at least one more game this season. The Maple Leafs have two Game 7s to the Bruins since 2013. It will either be a hat trick for Boston or redemption for Toronto on Tuesday night.

Sharks 2, Golden Knights 1 [2OT] (Series tied 3-3)

An all-time heroic performance by a goalie that spurned a tired team to victory. These aren’t stories that are commonly written in the annals of hockey history, but Martin Jones produced something special and Tomas Hertl obliged his goalie, scoring a shorty in double overtime in one of the craziest games in this playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three stars

1. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

Something about 58 saves over four-and-a-half periods of hockey. Jones should be shrouded with love and gifts by his teammates after giving them every reason to forge ahead and find a winner when the Sharks looked dead tired.

Jones set a franchise record with those 58 saves in one of the greatest goaltending performances in years. Jones made 88 saves over Game 5 and Game 6 to help pull San Jose back from being 3-1 down in the series to now have a chance to close it out in Game 7 on Tuesday. It’s remarkable, given Jones was yanked in two of the first four games and gave up six in another.

2. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

Three points for hockey’s favorite pest/superstar. Marchand scored off a faceoff in the first period to tie the game 1-1 and then drove the final dagger to force Game 7 on an empty netter with less than two minutes to go.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

Someone needed to be a hero at the other end of the ice while Jones was playing the role in San Jose’s zone. Who knew it would come on shorthanded?

Whatever it was, Hertl found the energy to will a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury with the Sharks down a man after a slashing call on Barclay Goodrow around the midway point of the second overtime period.

Highlight of the night

How could it be anything other than a Game 6 double-overtime, shorthanded game-winning goal?

Factoids of the night

Monday’s games

Game 6: Capitals at Hurricanes (WSH leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
Game 6: Predators at Stars (DAL leads 3-2), 8:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jones stops 58, Hertl scores shorthanded in double OT as Sharks force Game 7 vs. Golden Knights

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Martin Jones wouldn’t face the media following a Game 4 benching following a disastrous first period.

The official story from the San Jose Sharks’ public relations team was that the couldn’t find the embattled goaltender. This was hardly surprising after Jones had been chased twice in the first four games of the series, including Game 4 after two goals on seven shots led to his benching.

However long Jones was lost for, he emerged as the starter for Game 5 and began what would become a mini redemption tour, one that will make a stop in Game 7 on Tuesday after the Sharks battle back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights, winning Game 6 on Sunday night 2-1 in double overtime at T-Mobile Arena.

And what theatrics he had to make getting there, stopping 58 shots total to set a new franchise record in any game in their history, and a shorthanded snipe by Tomas Hertl just when it looks like Vegas might finally breach Jones’ defenses.

Part of sticking with Jones came down to not having a better alternative. Aaron Dell, San Jose’s backup, fared no better between the pipes as Mark Stone et al crushed the Sharks.

Vegas, of course, knows a thing or two about incredible goaltending — it carried them to the Stanley Cup Final last season. On Sunday, it obstructed them from taking another step toward hockey’s holy grail.

The Sharks really had no business being in a tie game when the clock read zeroes after three periods. Jones made it possible.

Jones has worn a couple hats in this series. He’s a big reason why the Sharks found themselves trailing 3-1 in the series. He allowed a whopping 11 goals on 54 shots between Game 2 and Game 4, a save percentage that is almost unfathomable.

Somewhere between his disappearance after Game 4 and being located in time for Game 5, Jones had some sort of epiphany. Horrible regular-season save percentage be damned, he was going to show everyone.

And he has.

Jones made 30 saves while facing elimination in Game 5 a couple of days ago to pull a game back for the Sharks. On Sunday, Jones had to be sharp again, stopping 17 shots in each of the second and third periods as the Sharks were wildly outplayed.

Somehow Hertl found the oomph needed to work Shea Theodore, sniping a wrister from the top of the left circle.

As crazy as this series has been, it gets more nutzo knowing that there’s yet to be a lead change through six games. The Sharks are also 35-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer. Vegas set a new record for shots on goal in a game with 59. They had 119 shot attempts, which is all sorts of madness.

And it all sets up for a brilliant Tuesday night where the Sharks and Golden Knights will join the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for a Game 7 extravaganza.

The hockey world can hardly wait.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Marchand, Bruins top Maple Leafs to force Game 7

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We will have at least one Game 7 in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Boston Bruins were able to avoid elimination and pushed their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs to a decisive seventh game with a rock solid 4-2 win on Sunday afternoon.

Brad Marchand was the big offensive star for the Bruins, finishing with a pair of goals and an assist in the win.

His power play goal at the 11:23 mark of the first period came just two minutes after the Maple Leafs had scored to taken an early lead and proved to be a turning point in the game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Torey Krug scored another power play goal just a few minutes later to give the Bruins the lead, and from that point on they dominated for much of the day.

At one point Toronto went more than nine minutes without registering a shot on goal and spent most of the second period stuck in its own zone defending a relentless Bruins forecheck that seemed to be winning every battle and dictating the pace of the game.

The Bruins were able to eventually pad their lead in the second period when Jake DeBrusk scored on a beautiful 2-on-2 rush with David Krejci to give them a two-goal advantage.

That goal would prove to be the game-winner as Auston Matthews was able to bring the Maple Leafs to within one mid-way through the third period, but they were never able to get the equalizer despite a flurry of chances late in the game.

Marchand added an empty-net goal, his second goal of the game, to secure the win.

While special teams played a huge role on Sunday (the Bruins scored two power play goals; the Maple Leafs’ power play was shut out) it would be oversimplifying it to say that was the only difference in the game. The reality is that Boston was superior team in all situations and was dominating Toronto from territorial standpoint all afternoon. After two periods the Maple Leafs were attempting only 32 percent of the even-strength shot attempts and rarely tested Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Had it not been for a handful of highlight reel saves by Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen this game could have easily gotten out of hand in the Bruins’ favor.

Now the Maple Leafs find themselves in a situation where they have to head back to Boston to play a Game 7 for the second year in a row. If they are going to flip the script from a year ago, they are going to need a significantly better performance than the one they had on Sunday.

Game 7 of the Bruins-Maple Leafs series will take place on Tuesday night in Boston.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Burns, Giordano, Hedman are 2019 Norris Trophy finalists

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NHL awards season rolls on with Sunday’s announcement of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, which is handed out annually to the defense player that demonstrates the greatest all-around ability at the position throughout the entire season.

The three finalists for the award this year are Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames, Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, and Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Hedman and Burns have won the award the past two seasons, while Giordano is a finalist for the first time in his career. He has finished in the top-10 of the voting three times. Before this season sixth was the highest he ever finished.

The Norris Trophy is named after former Detroit Red Wings owner James E. Norris and has been handed out annually since the 1952-53 season. Red Kelly was the first player to win it, while Bobby Orr won it an NHL record eight times during his career.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Giordano: Probably the favorite to win the award for much of the season due to his dominance at both ends of the rink. The 35-year-old Giordano had a career year in Calgary that saw him play a shutdown defensive game on the top pairing for the best regular season team in the Western Conference, while also finishing with a career-best 74 points in 78 games. Among defenders that logged at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time, Giordano finished in the top-five in shot attempt differential, scoring chance differential, and goal differential (all via Natural Stat Trick). He is trying to become the first Flames defender to ever win the award.

The case for Burns: Simply the best and most productive blueliner in the NHL this season offensively. Burns appeared in all 82 games for the fifth year in a row, logged more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game and finished with 83 total points. He not only finished as the top-scoring blue-liner in the NHL this season, he was the only defender to average more than a point-per-game and just the fourth to do so since 1995-96 (minimum 70 games played), joining a list that includes only Erik Karlsson, Mike Green, and Nicklas Lidstrom. He won the award during the 2015-16 season and is trying to become just the 14th player to win it multiple times.

The case for Hedman: The reigning Norris Trophy winner, Hedman was limited to just 70 games this season due to injury but still finds himself in the top-three of the voting due to his consistently brilliant play. When he was on the ice, he was once again the driving force for one of the league’s best teams, helping the Lightning tie the NHL record for most regular season wins. Hedman played more than 22 minutes per night and scored 12 goals, making it the sixth year in a row he scored at least 10 goals in a season. He is trying to become the first defender since Nicklas Lidstrom to win the Norris Trophy in back-to-back seasons. This is his third consecutive year as a finalist for the award.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.