PITTSBURGH — Thanks to trades, free agency departures, an injury, and some recent personal matters, the Winnipeg Jets’ defense has been completely decimated over the past six months, leaving them with a makeshift unit for their game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night against the Penguins.
None of their top-eight defenders in ice-time from a year ago were available on Tuesday, and the unit as a whole had just 350 total games of NHL experience. You would be forgiven if you did not give them much of a chance to win with that lineup, especially after giving up a goal to Sidney Crosby just 32 seconds into the first period.
They not only won, they completely shut down the Penguins and received three goals from their makeshift blue line on their way to an impressive 4-1 win to wrap up their season-opening four-game road trip.
“Those guys have worked really hard back there, they are learning every shift,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “I think the forwards did a nice job too, and what our forwards do well is cause enough concern deep in the offensive zone that they draw people off our back end, and that’s what happened on a number of those goals.”
The defense started making an impact just five minutes after Crosby’s goal when 18-year-old rookie Ville Heinola blasted a slap shot between Matt Murray‘s arm and body that trickled into the back of the net for his first NHL goal. Maurice was asked if a first career goal from a young player can help lift a bench send some positive energy around the lineup.
“It depends if they like the kid or not,” he said. “And they really like this guy. He has a big smile on his face, he works really hard, and the players always respect talent. He does so many good little things that the guys on the ice appreciate.”
Heinola played 17:24 in the win, finishing as a plus-three along with the goal. With Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot gone and Dustin Byfuglien‘s future unsettled, the Jets are going to have to lean on young defenders like Heinola and Neal Pionk to take on significant roles right from the start.
Pionk also scored a goal in the win, already his second with the team after coming over from the New York Rangers in the Trouba trade.
“It feels good,” said Pionk. “We have a younger D corps, but they are all here for a reason. We are all here for a reason. We have proved it at other levels. If play our system we are going to be alright.”
Given all of the issues and questions the Jets have had on their blue line, they still managed to wrap up their four-game road trip to open the season with two wins, and that is just fine with Maurice.
“I’m happy with it, missing the guys we have. Then they feel good, like the defense have done something to make that happen. They have played a big part in that. You play .500 on the road and win your home games you are a good team.”
The Jets open their home schedule on Thursday against the Minnesota Wild.