Jets draw first blood versus Golden Knights

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Jets’ Mark Scheifele (left) congratulates defenceman Dustin Byfuglien on his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during Game 1 of their Western Conference final on Saturday night in Winnipeg. (KEVIN KING/WINNIPEG SUN)

The drivers keep leading the way for the Winnipeg Jets.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler and trusted alternates Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien were once again at the heart of the action, combining for two goals and six points as Winnipeg opened the Western Conference final with a tidy 4-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Wheeler was a force defensively and chipped in three helpers, showing the way as he has throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice has spoken at length about the impact Wheeler is having on his team this season and he was asked once more what makes him such a good captain and leader.

“We don’t have the time for that,” said Maurice, who is not usually short on words. “First, the style of play. It would be the Winnipeg Jets identity game. He’s got an awful lot of speed, he makes some plays, battles hard, blocks shots and does all of the hard things and he’s a very skilled player. He’s a fit, driven man, so his consistency is what we all kind of strive to be. He’s an every shift guy. Without saying because of the way he plays, he holds everybody to a standard.”

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Game 2 goes Monday night before the series shifts to Sin City for the next two.

Wheeler is the guy who sets the tempo for the Jets, whether it’s on the first day of training camp or in the 13th game of this post-season run.

It should come as no surprise that his heads-up defensive play led to the opening goal just 65 seconds into the contest.

Wheeler broke up a cross-ice pass from Jonathan Marchessault and turned the play up ice to Scheifele, who left the puck for Byfuglien to step into a slapper from the top of the circle.

Just like that, the Jets had scored first once again and quickly showed there was absolutely no concern about suffering an emotional letdown.

“(Wheeler) drives this bus. We all follow him,” said Scheifele. “We like to think that good defence creates good offence and that play right there is a prime example of it.”

Wheeler got involved again as the Jets extended the lead on a power-play goal, feathering a perfect pass to Patrik Laine for a one-timer at 6:49.

The play wouldn’t have happened without the great hustle from Byfuglien, who stretched out his left arm to prevent the puck from clearing the zone.

Byfuglien was once again a force all over the ice, picking his spots properly, producing a goal and an assist in 24:44 of action and finishing with three shots on goal, one hit, three takeaways and two blocked shots.

He was all over the ice — and in a good way.

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“That game that you saw and he’s certainly played others, you saw the Dustin Byfuglien spectrum,” said Maurice. “He can shoot the puck a ton, he can make soft-hand plays and he can be as big and strong as you want out there. And he’s been very consistent with his game.”

Byfuglien won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, but his only other playoff experience prior to this spring was a four-game sweep to the Anaheim Ducks in 2015.

“He’s missed that taste for playoffs and now he realizes what it is and how hard it is. He enjoys it,” said Jets centre Paul Stastny. “Day in and day out, he realizes it’s a battle, you’re going to be sore day in and day out. But when you’re not in it for so long, you miss it, and you realize how bad you want it, how rare these opportunities are. He’s the first guy not to take a night off, knowing how important these games are.”

After the Golden Knights got on the board with a goal Brayden McNabb, it was Scheifele who restored a two-goal cushion with a perfect redirection on a point shot from none other than Byfuglien.

Two days after setting an NHL record for the most goals on the road in a playoff series (seven), Scheifele scored his 12th goal, which leads all players.

This is far from a three-man show, but there’s no question which guys are driving the bus.9781438853581_grande

“They’re our hardest workers,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, before rattling off the nicknames of the three guys wearing letters. “Those guys drive the pace every night and we follow those guys. They’ve been huge for us and they’ve been huge in the playoffs.”

There was plenty of discussion about goaltending going into this series and in the opening game, the Jets made Marc-Andre Fleury look mortal — though he made plenty of important saves to keep his team in the contest.

“Yeah. If you’re going to beat him, you’re going to have to move him across, you’re going to have to (get a) deflection, get in front of him,” said Stastny. “Sometimes, they’re not the prettiest goals, but I think we did a good job getting to the net and getting first- and second-chance opportunities. The majority of the time, if he sees it he’s going to stop it. We know with him it’s those second, third efforts that you got to bear down on.”

As for Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, he wasn’t overworked by any stretch of the imagination, but he had no chance on the power-play redirection from William Karlsson and finished with 19 saves.

The Jets understand this is merely the first step in the race to four – and they’re expecting a bigger push from the Golden Knights when the two clubs renew acquaintances.

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COACH’S CHALLENGE PAYS OFF

Given the way the bulk of his coach’s challenges had gone during the regular season, it would have been easy for Paul Maurice to be reluctant when the first opportunity for one came up in the opening game of the Western Conference final.

But instead of ignoring the waved-off goal, the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets trusted his gut.

All that was at stake was his timeout if Maurice was wrong, but with a 2-0 lead already in his back pocket, he felt the challenge to overturn the call for goalie interference was worth the risk.

On the play in question, Jets defenceman Ben Chiarot had the puck behind the net and his backhand pass caromed in off the skate of Joel Armia, who was parked in the crease and made contact with Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

The goal was waived off and after a video review to ensure the puck did not enter the net from Armia making a distinct kicking motion, Maurice used his challenge.

After video review, the call on the ice was overturned, since it was determined the contact between Armia and Fleury occurred after the puck had been redirected into the net.

“The puck is on its way to the net when the contact happens. That’s what I saw… the direction to the empty net,” said Maurice, whose club earned a 4-2 win in the series opener. “(Armia) didn’t go in freely. Not that he was pushed in, but there was contact on him (from Golden Knights forward Ryan Carpenter) to keep him in the line that he was going. But the contact that happened would have been incidental. The puck was going in one way or the other… because it’s already on the way to the net. So that’s why I made the call.”

Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant likely didn’t agree with the assessment of Maurice.

After he left the podium following his post-game address, Gallant said “isn’t anybody going to ask me about the goal?”

By then, it was already too late.

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