After recording 18 wins over Central Division opponents last season, the Winnipeg Jets picked up where they left off Tuesday night as they downed the St. Louis Blues 4-2 in their first divisional game of the 2023-24 campaign.
Connor Hellebuyck wasn’t overly busy, but he was extremely sharp in making 18 stops, including a few timely saves as the Jets won back-to-back games for the first time of the young season.
David Gustafsson and Mason Appleton scored only 18 seconds apart in the middle frame. Kyle Connor added one more in the third before Morgan Barron locked down the win with an empty netter.
Associate coach Scott Arniel was running the bench as the interim head coach after Rick Bowness took a leave of absence to tend to his wife who is recovering after a seizure.
“We did a great job of bringing that home,” said Arniel. “I thought we did a lot of real good things. Talked this morning about how good St. Louis is on the rush and we saw that, especially that top line.
“They had five or six chances there through the first two periods. So, we kinda got that straightened away a little bit in the third, and did a better job of kinda keeping people in front of us.”
It was Gustafsson’s first NHL goal in almost four full years going back to November of 2019. And he was awarded one of the player of the game jackets by his teammates afterwards.
“I’m happy J-Mo (Josh Morrissey) gave it to me,” said Gustafsson. “It’s nice to get that recognition.”
“Gus is such a hard working kid,” Arniel said. “It’s great to see. Guys love it when a guy like that goes out and scores a huge goal like he did tonight.”
Winnipeg gave up a ton of odd-man rushes in the first two periods, but limited the Blues’ chances in the final frame.
“Once we got that lead in the second, I thought we played a pretty efficient game of hockey,” said Appleton. “That’s the Central (Division). It’s 2-1 games, it’s 3-2 games, and you got to find ways to hold those leads, and win those games, and we did that tonight.”
The Jets were intent on getting the two points for their missing head coach, dedicating the game to the Bowness family.
“We’re a family here,” Arniel said. “And we care about each other, and they care about Rick and Judy, and they wanted to put their best foot forward. And I thought they did a great job of it.”
“Bones (Bowness) knows that we’re all here for him,” Appleton said. “We’re all here for Judy as well and we’re happy that she’s doing better.
“We’re gonna keep this thing going and whenever the time is hopefully right for Bones to be back and Judy to be 100 per cent healthy, then that day will come, but right now we’re just praying for him, thinking of him. We still have a job to do, so, it’s tough, it’s how the world works sometime. You could call this win for her, for sure.”
Mark Scheifele has a point in every game so far, recording an assist on the empty net goal to extend his point streak to six games.
Neither team found the back of the net in the opening frame with Winnipeg outshooting the Blues 8-6.
But the Jets went to work quickly in the second, scoring two goals in 18 seconds to grab hold of the game.
The first marker came at the 2:55 mark when Cole Perfetti took the puck behind the Blues net and sent a perfect backhand pass to the slot. That’s where Gustafsson, coming into the zone unchecked off the bench, wired one past Jordan Binnington to open the scoring.
It was Gustafsson’s second career goal and first since Nov. 27, 2019.
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As the first goal was being announced in the arena, Appleton struck to double the lead. Adam Lowry skated the puck out of the corner and found Appleton free in the slot, where he wired a Lowry pass past Binnington for his second of the season.
Winnipeg was in complete control for the opening half of the period as Hellebuyck faced just one shot in the opening 11 minutes but he got a test shortly thereafter when Jordan Kyrou got free on a breakaway but the Jets goalie turned him aside.
Kyrou would get another breakaway later in the period and again Hellebuyck rose to the challenge, but the Blues started to tilt the ice in their favour, earning a pair of late-period power plays.
On the first attempt, the Jets wound up with the best chance when Lowry got free on a breakaway shorthanded but Binnington denied him.
On the second man advantage, the Blues finally scored their first power play goal of the season when Pavel Buchnevich redirected a Brayden Schenn pass over the shoulder of Hellebuyck to make it 2-1 after 40 minutes.
The Blues earned their third power play of the night early in the third but it didn’t last two minutes before they were assessed a minor of their own, and shortly into 4-on-4 play the Jets restored their two-goal lead.
After St. Louis won the faceoff in their own end, they turned it over to Nate Schmidt along the blue line. He found Connor in the slot, who eluded coverage before ripping a shot top-shelf to make it 3-1 Jets.
Still trailing by two with less than four minutes to go, the Blues decided to pull Binnington to try and mount a rally and it paid immediate dividends.
Morrissey turned the puck over behind his own net and a centering pass bounced off the skate of Appleton right to the stick of Robert Thomas, parked alone near the front of the net. He made no mistake to cut the lead to one with 3:23 to go.
Binnington was pulled again with just under 90 seconds remaining but this time the Jets were able to dodge disaster. Scheifele found Barron streaking down the ice and Barron sealed the win with an empty-netter.
Winnipeg improves to 3-3 on the season while the Blues drop to 2-2-1. Binnington turned aside 26 shots in defeat.
The Jets now head on the road to face the Detroit Red Wings Thursday night in Motown. Pregame coverage on 680 CJOB begins at 4 p.m. with the puck dropping just after 6 p.m.