Opinion

The sample size is extremely small, with only 61 minutes and 18 seconds of action-packed hockey under their belts. So the requisite caution about reading too much into it is required. But if it's possible for a team to quickly carve out its identity in a new season, the 2021 Winnipeg Jets may already know theirs.

They will not go quietly into the night. Nor are they going to be an easy out in the wildly-entertaining Canadian division.

The sample size is extremely small, with only 61 minutes and 18 seconds of action-packed hockey under their belts. So the requisite caution about reading too much into it is required. But if it's possible for a team to quickly carve out its identity in a new season, the 2021 Winnipeg Jets may already know theirs.

They will not go quietly into the night. Nor are they going to be an easy out in the wildly-entertaining Canadian division.

Thursday's 4-3 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames at Bell MTS Place was impressive on several fronts, not the least of which is how the Jets only got better as the game went on, erasing an early two-goal deficit and, at times, evoking memories of that powerhouse 2018 club that went to the Western Conference Final.

Yes, they were that dominant, especially in the second and third periods, when the Alberta visitors were hanging on for dear life, the way a cowboy clings to a bucking bull at the Calgary Stampede.

Only a spectacular Jacob Markstrom save off Mark Scheifele in the dying minutes kept this from ending in regulation. Patrik Laine, who began training camp by brushing off trade talk and telling me "I'm here, aren't I," certainly made a statement to the league by capping off a memorable two-goal game with the winner during the three-on-three skills session.

It wasn't just the snipe, or his earlier bar-down beauty, that stood out. How about the way Laine faked a pass behind his own net to take Johnny Gaudreau out of the play during overtime, then turned on the proverbial jets — pun very much intended — to race down the ice and fire the winner? That showed off a terrific sense of hockey IQ, something the 22-year-old doesn't get enough credit for. Those smarts were on display earlier in the night when he gave a crispy, no-look feed to Kyle Connor to set up the tying goal.

Mark Scheifele was robbed of a goal by the Flames goalie in the dying minutes of the game.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mark Scheifele was robbed of a goal by the Flames goalie in the dying minutes of the game.

Throw in the fact he jumped into a second-period melee when Connor got crushed from behind, throwing punches in the direction of super-villain Matthew Tkachuk, and Laine looked every bit the part of a motivated, team-first player who is going to do everything in his power to help his own cause, and that of the organization currently signing his cheques. Which, regardless of how this saga eventually turns out, is great news for Winnipeg in the here and now.

So the Jets deservedly put two points in the bank right off the hop, which carry even greater value than usual since the season is only 56 games long, and every contest is against a divisional rival. Now the trick is to do it all again, starting Monday night in Toronto. And then again, and again, and again, more nights than not, right through until the playoffs begin in mid-May.

Fortunately for Winnipeg, they now have an early template for success to draw upon. There was no panic in their game despite a bit of a jumpy start and the 3-1 hole, just a steely focus and quiet confidence they had the necessary weapons. Which they certainly do, with a top-heavy forward group that includes a top-six as good as any in the NHL.

Let's not overlook the fact this is a battle-tested bunch, with an opening-night roster that featured 16 returning players, including 10 that have played at least five seasons in Winnipeg. The Jets are a deep, experienced bunch, one that has enjoyed some extreme highs, but also some frustrating lows that can serve as the ultimate motivator. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has opted to keep the core intact, hoping that patience will ultimately pay off.

Jets and Flames clash as Jets’ Kyle Connor recovers from getting checked into the boards.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jets and Flames clash as Jets’ Kyle Connor recovers from getting checked into the boards.

It's one thing if many of those are replacement-level players. But when your most tenured skaters are also your best skaters, it can become a real asset.

One of their main goals this year is to make life easier for Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, cutting down on the extreme number of high-danger scoring chances they repeatedly gave up last year, leading the league in that category by a country mile.

Mission accomplished, at least in Game 1. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Jets surrendered just four all night while playing five-on-five hockey, while recording nine of their own on Markstrom. When you include power plays, the Jets were up 10-6 in that department, which meant Hellebuyck needed to be only good, not great. Other advanced stats, such as Corsi (54.29 per cent) and expected goals (62.4 per cent) were also solidly in their favour.

Add it all up and that's a recipe for success.

One of the main goals of the Jets this year is to make life easier for Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

One of the main goals of the Jets this year is to make life easier for Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck.

Tucker Poolman, playing on the top pair with Josh Morrissey, also stood out, continuing a trend that started late last year and into the Edmonton bubble where he's much more comfortable picking his spots to be aggressive and jump into the play. Maybe it's the fact he has the number 3 on his sweater, but I swear I looked down from my press box perch at one point Thursday and thought, for a brief second, I was watching No. 33 on the attack.

Poolman, like Byfuglien, has also played as a forward at times, specifically while at the University of North Dakota, and his instincts are getting better with each passing game.

The Jets were without defensive staple Dylan DeMelo for opening night, as he was with his wife after the birth of her child. But when the heady, steady veteran returns for the road trip next week — replacing the talented but inconsistent Sami Niku, who led the Jets with three giveaways Thursday — Winnipeg's back end looks a lot more settled.

Special teams were another area of concern. After giving up a first-period goal with Mathieu Perreault in the box, giving the vastly underrated Elias Lindholm way too much space to thread a perfect pass to Gaudreau for what was basically an empty-net shot, the Jets tightened up by killing off the other two infractions. And added a pivotal power play goal of their own in the middle frame, converting on a five-on-three in which coach Paul Maurice used only forwards.

Laine celebrates his game-winning goal with teammate Neal Pionk.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Laine celebrates his game-winning goal with teammate Neal Pionk.

I loved the outside-the-box approach, and I wonder if it's something he'd consider at times for regular 5-on-4 advantages. With Morrissey and fellow defenceman Neal Pionk lacking the booming point shot Winnipeg used to have in the form of Dustin Byfuglien, loading up by putting Paul Stastny or Nikolaj Ehlers with Scheifele, Laine, Connor and Blake Wheeler makes plenty of sense in certain situations.

In my pre-season predictions, I had them finishing fourth in the division and just sneaking into the playoffs. I'm not about to alter that based on one solid outing. As I said off the top, it's early. There's unquestionably going to be more tough periods, like the opening 20 minutes, and likely some long nights at the office in the weeks ahead, which is the nature of the beast in any season.

But as we learned on opening night, a Jets team we already knew had plenty of high-end talent, also has some impressive poise, a trait that should serve them well as they try to make some north-of-the-border noise.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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