Sports

Still underrated by some, Connor delivers for Jets in the clutch again

WINNIPEG — Underrated.

It’s a word that can occasionally be overused in the world of sports, but in the case of Winnipeg Jets sniper Kyle Connor, the shoe — or the skate — still fits.

And when you look at the body of work for evidence, it remains a head-scratcher that one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league since he became an NHL regular still might not be a household name outside of the market he plays in.

Make no mistake, his contributions are valued by his teammates — and respected by plenty of his opponents — but he simply doesn’t carry the type of cache that should be attached to a guy who currently sits tied for fourth in the NHL in goals with Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers.

Connor delivered his 19th of the NHL season in dramatic fashion on Sunday afternoon, finding some space on an odd-man rush during three-on-three and snapping a shot past former teammate Laurent Brossoit, allowing the Jets to depart T-Mobile Arena with a 5-4 overtime triumph over the Vegas Golden Knights.

“Underrated is probably the word I would use,” said Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry. “I don’t think he gets enough respect throughout the league for the type of player that he is. Yes, he does score the game-winner, but if you’re watching in the third period, he’s also shutting down a couple of plays defensively by tracking back real hard into the back of the ice and giving us the opportunity to win a hockey game.”

The raw numbers continue to be staggering.

Connor is up to 150 goals in 336 NHL games and 28 of those are game-winners.

If you need someone to step up at a critical time, Connor is often ready to answer that call.

“I owe him $500 for the game-winner, that’s for sure,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt. “KC is a guy who can open up the game anytime, and it’s always fun to have those types of players on your team that can do that. All it takes is one.

“To have that type of danger, to have that type of threat… as a defenceman you always have to know where he’s at. That three on three is tailor made for a guy who has speed and can get up and make a play. It’s awesome. I will happily be paying him.”

It was the first game in two full weeks for the Jets and this one featured a full-on variety pack of emotions for a team playing for the third time since Lowry replaced Paul Maurice.

There were the expected signs of rust, as puck management was at the root of the Jets falling behind 2-0 on goals from Michael Amadio and Evgenii Dadonov.

Rather than wilt against the team leading the Pacific Division despite missing several key cogs for an extended period of time, the Jets showed some resolve, getting goals 20 seconds apart early in the second period to pull even.

Those goal scorers represented two players looking to make the most of an enhanced opportunity.

There was Jansen Harkins, up on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Connor, making a nifty individual effort and showcasing his skill and shot to slip past Chandler Stephenson and find a lane to sneak his wrister through traffic.

Then there was Kristian Reichel, in just his second game with the Jets, riding shotgun with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp and taking advantage of a turnover to bury his first NHL goal.

“Feelings were unreal. I don’t know what to say,” said Reichel. “I was told to be a shooter and I just tried to put it on the net. I picked the corner there and just closed my eyes there. It was a little bit lucky.”

Luck aside, the Jets’ first four goals — including a nifty redirection by Paul Stastny and a power play marker by Copp from the blue paint — were all examples of the types of goals the team is looking to score more of.

This isn’t about asking the Jets not to utilize the skill, it’s about also having the ability (and willingness) to get to the dirty areas where the majority of goals are scored when the stakes get higher.

“Yeah. It’s always been our focal point, creating offence, creating so much havoc,” said Connor. “It’s tough for their goaltender to read the play, and that’s the majority of why we want to get there.”

The other important development for the Jets was that, despite losing fourth-line centre David Gustafsson late in the first period with a lower-body injury (a different injury than the one that knocked him out of a game on Dec. 17), Winnipeg got production throughout the lineup.

Each of the three lines that took a regular shift scored in regulation and the power play notched a marker as well.

No, this was not a defensive clinic, as the Jets allowed 46 shots on goal — including 22 in the first period.

Despite allowing an extra-attacker goal with 8.1 seconds remaining and failing to hold a two-goal lead in the third period when Mattias Janmark scored twice, the Jets got another strong performance from Connor Hellebuyck and ultimately found a way to secure the extra point during three-on-three.

For a team scratching and clawing to get back above the playoff line in the Western Conference, starting a three-game road trip with a victory was the only thing that really mattered.

By improving to 15-11-5, the Jets are up three points behind the Oilers while holding a game in hand.

It was a special afternoon for Schmidt and Stastny, popular members of the Golden Knights that were playing for the first time in Sin City since being traded during the off-season of 2020 — Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks and Stastny to the Jets.

The Golden Knights played a video message during a stoppage in play and, judging by the looks on their respective faces, you could tell the gesture was appreciated by Schmidt (who played 196 games for Vegas over three seasons and 47 more in the playoffs) and Stastny (121 games for Vegas over two seasons and 21 more in the playoffs).

“I spent some good years and had a lot of fun. This city means a lot to me. It was special,” said Schmidt, an original member of the misfits team that reached the Stanley Cup final in 2018. “Paul and I talked about it before the game, it was really cool to see people out and about, signs and jerseys and such. You go through a lot with a city like our first year, everything that we went through.

“Some of those things you can’t really rewind on, they’re always a part of you. Like I said, it was a really good reception. Happy that we were on the good side of things. I had some jitters, especially in the first period, but it was fun. There’s a lot of things going on in that game. Fans got their money’s worth.”



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