Jets’ second line starting to deliver ahead of crucial series vs. Oilers
WINNIPEG — This was one of those times Paul Maurice simply had to trust his vision and he wasn’t going to be influenced by the raw numbers, even if they may have left him wanting more actual production.
The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets has been around long enough to know the traditional scoring summary isn’t the only way to fully measure the success of a line — or more importantly, determine what that line can ultimately become.
Chemistry can be an interesting experiment and sometimes simply sticking with your beliefs can lead to tangible results even after encountering some obstacles.
When the subject of a recent Pierre-Luc Dubois dry spell (two assists in his previous nine games) was raised in the morning, Maurice shrugged his shoulders and didn’t seem overly concerned.
Not only that, he doubled down on his intention to give the second-line trio of Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor the benefit of the doubt and a much longer leash to get things sorted out.
“I’m aware of the numbers and then do you ask yourself, ‘Do you care?’ And what I mean by that is there a problem with the number as it relates to the way the line or the team is playing,” Maurice said on Wednesday morning. “And for me, there isn’t. We’re going to give this lots of time.”
That combo platter of patience and belief was rewarded several hours later, when that Jets line delivered three goals, including the overtime winner, in a 4-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
Connor scored a pair of goals, to give him 16 on the season, while Ehlers erased some frustration by scoring his 15th of the campaign 55 seconds into the 3-on-3 session, seconds after he was bailed out by a great save by Connor Hellebuyck on Jeff Petry.
Dubois recorded three assists and is suddenly up to four goals (including two OT winners of his own) and 10 points in 14 games since joining the Jets.
Never mind the vastly improved numbers for the centrepiece of the blockbuster trade, this was all about a line that looks like it’s finally starting to click.
Even during a game where Ehlers provided another critical self-assessment, complete with a side order of self-deprecating humour.
“You know what, to be honest, I think I played like (crap),” said Ehlers. “My linemates were playing a really good game, but as a line, it’s been working really well. It’s three guys with a lot of speed and we try to use that as much as possible. We’re shooting pucks and they’re going in for us right now, so that’s very exciting. We are building. It’s still new for us.”
Ehlers was asked a follow-up question about providing a critical analysis of his own game for the second time in a week — the last coming after scoring twice but being on the ice for three goals against.
“I’ve always been this way,” said Ehlers. “But I guess the last two times where I haven’t felt like I’ve played a good game, I’ve been in here talking to you guys after (on Zoom), but I know when I play well, and I know when I don’t play well. It’s not a secret.
“I don’t hide away from that, but it is what it is. We got the two points. I’ve got to work on my game and look at my game. See what is not going and then build from there.”
Since his arrival, Dubois has made a habit of saying he has more to give and that there are numerous areas he can improve on.
When asked about his recent drought, Dubois didn’t shy away from the subject either, making it clear his game had another level to reach, while reiterating the importance of doing things that don’t end up on the stat sheet.
“Hockey is a lot more complicated than points and stuff like that. I'm definitely not where I know where my game can be. I'm not hiding that either,” said Dubois. “I know I can be a lot better and in a lot of aspects. But, no, it's faceoffs, it's D-zone, it’s coverage, it’s offensive zone, being in their zone, it's dominant possession. It's everything that contributes to the player I know I can be.
“It's hard to just play defence. It's hard to just play offence. But it's even harder to do both, and that's what I'm trying to do out there.”
His Jets teammates understand what Dubois has already gone through this season can’t be easy, with a public trade request, a 14-day quarantine and a lower-body injury among the impediments to overcome.
But day after day, they see Dubois putting in the effort to try and get to where he knows he can eventually be while picking up the tendencies of his linemates on the fly.
“Yeah, he’s been doing really well. He wants to learn, too,” said Connor. “That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve picked up on him. He’s coming back to the bench, talking out every play. Even in practices and morning skates, he’s working on his game.
“He wants to be better and be that guy. For us as a line, it starts so much with our speed and getting on the D and using our sticks. It’s one of our best assets. (Forcing) a lot of turnovers, once you get the puck, I think we just need to be in the right spots, supporting each other in that offensive zone. We did that pretty well (Wednesday).”
Some line combinations work immediately, while others require a few more test drives before you really figure out what is under the hood.
“Chemistry can either instantly click and you can feel like you’ve played together your entire lives and you feel really good about where you’re going after some success,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “If not, you just have to work and talk a little bit more.”
The Jets remain one of two NHL teams that have yet to lose consecutive games in regulation (the Florida Panthers are the other), improving to 8-0-1 following a loss.
Despite seeing a two-goal cushion evaporate during the third period and giving up another late goal after Carey Price was pulled for an extra attacker, the Jets pushed the reset button following regulation time and found a way to bump their record in overtime to 6-1 and overall to 18-9-2.
Suddenly those items in the rearview mirror are definitely closer than they appeared a week ago for the Toronto Maple Leafs (30 games played), with both the Jets (29 games played) and Edmonton Oilers (32 games played) sitting two points out of the top spot in the congested North Division standings.
Speaking of the Oilers, they rebounded nicely from a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames by blasting their Alberta rival 7-3 in the rematch Wednesday, setting the stage for an important two-game series with the Jets.
Find a way to sweep and some separation can be created. Get swept and be bounced into a chase position.
Things can change quickly in this topsy-turvy campaign.
So the timing of this offensive outburst probably couldn’t have come at a much better time for Dubois.
Although Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry will handle the bulk of the responsibilities against the Oilers dynamic centre duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draistatl, part of the reason Dubois was acquired is to help neutralize those types of talents.
This will be his first game against the Oilers since the trade and you can be sure Maurice and his coaching staff are eager to see the impact he can have.
When Dubois, Ehlers and Connor play the way they did on Wednesday, they’re the group that can provide the matchup headache for the opposition.
Was Wednesday merely a sign of things to come for a unit with enormous potential?
Maurice certainly hopes so.
“This line, because we have three really unique players in some ways, it’s going to take them a little time to find each other, to find the rhythm of who is going to the net,” said Maurice. “You’ve got both guys on these wings are just shooters and they play their best when they think like that. Probably Pierre-Luc would have recognized that early on and he was trying to make a lot of plays.
“(Wednesday), he pulls the puck and shoots it and Kyle gets to the net and scores a big goal for us. That will develop as they get to know each other. They’re dynamic with that speed on the wings and with Pierre-Luc’s size, we think there’s a lot there.”