Unheralded trio comes up big for Jets in overtime win against Avalanche

DENVER — Depending on your point of view, it was either the equivalent of playing a hunch or taking a calculated gamble.

At the end of the day, maybe it was a little bit of both.

No matter how you categorize it, the decision made by associate coach Scott Arniel going into the three-on-three overtime required only 31 seconds to pay off as the Winnipeg Jets earned a 4-3 overtime victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night at Ball Arena to improve to 2-1.

With Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar sending the high-powered trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar over the boards to start the extra period, Arniel countered with Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton and Neal Pionk.

Appleton made a heads-up play along the right-wing boards to seal off MacKinnon to spring Pionk and Lowry for a two-on-one rush and that’s when Pionk unloaded a booming slapper that went off the iron and in for his second goal of the contest.

“A guy like that, you have to go through his hands more than his body. He can shimmy and shake,” said Appleton, who went into detail about the intricacies involved on the play that led to the OT winner. “He was tight along the wall, so I didn’t really have to get much into him, just take away his hands and the hips, then use my reach to poke one out for Neal.”

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Appleton also set up Pionk with a beautiful drop pass earlier in the game during a four-on-four situation when put out on the ice against the MacKinnon line.

“You have to do a job against those guys. That’s what we’re out there to do. We did that,” said Appleton. “We scored twice even man against those guys. First and foremost, you shut them down. If you get a chance, take advantage of it.”

Speaking of taking advantage of opportunities, it was Appleton who was promoted to the Jets’ top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor after Nikolaj Ehlers was held out of the lineup with a suspected lower-body injury.

While both of Appleton’s points came while skating alongside his regular linemate Lowry, he was a driving force throughout the contest, getting involved offensively and also providing a conscientious presence defensively.

“We were just looking for somebody who is real responsible,” said Arniel. “We knew that the 29 (MacKinnon) line was probably coming out over the boards, so we just wanted to make sure there was somebody there who could do a little bit of the grunt work, making sure he had good detail coming back and helping with the D coverage. He did a great job with it.”

The Jets came out strong and built a pair of two-goal leads (2-0 and 3-1), but watched the Avalanche pull even after Mikko Rantanen’s second of the contest and a power-play marker from Valeri Nichushkin that was set up by Rantanen.

Instead of sitting back and letting the Avalanche steamroll them in the third, the Jets stuck to their structure and regained their composure, getting the game to overtime after a scoreless third period before Pionk ended things.

“I was going far side. I got a little lucky, but it was a good shot,” said Pionk. “We got off to a great start. They’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they’re going to push back, right? They scored a couple goals, we broke down a few times, but overall in the third I thought we responded well.”

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Jets winger Cole Perfetti chipped in a goal and an assist for his first points of the season, burying a perfect pass from Blake Wheeler while adding a helper on a power-play marker from Sam Gagner.

Gagner’s goal was his second of the campaign and meant the Jets were even (1-1) in the special-teams battle.

It was the best game of the young season for Pionk, who had three shots on goal and four shot attempts to go along with four hits and a blocked shot.

Playing alongside Josh Morrissey as the Jets made modifications to all three of their defence pairings, Pionk played an assertive game and was involved in all three zones.

Having Pionk provide a bounceback season after playing through a nagging foot injury is essential for the Jets if they’re going to enjoy success in what is shaping up to be a highly competitive Central Division.

The Jets have talked about needing to have the defence corps score somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 goals this season and these were the first two provided through three games.

“The most explosive teams, scoring comes from all over their lineup,” said Appleton. “Even on simple line rushes, you get that fourth guy coming into the zone, we’re going to find them more and more. It’s going to become second nature and we’re going to score a lot of goals finding that wave of defencemen.

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“They just have to have the confidence that we’re there to back them up, they can stay in the play a little bit longer and don’t have to bail as fast. It’s just another dynamic to our offence.”

Dylan Samberg replaced Logan Stanley in the lineup and was used on a pair with Dylan DeMelo, who appeared in his 400th NHL game.

Samberg played a simple, but effective game — which is precisely what the coaching staff is looking for as the competition on the third pairing continues.

Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt were used together to round out a group that played with more cohesion and mostly kept a high-octane opponent in check — with the exception of a pair of extended shifts, one of which featured Pionk playing with a left-handed stick (borrowed from Lowry) that was turned around after Pionk broke his own earlier in the shift.

The Jets are back in action on Thursday night as they close out a three-game road trip against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Backup goalie David Rittich is expected to get the start in goal, while the status of Ehlers remains up in the air.

Earlier in the day, Arniel provided an update on head coach Rick Bowness, who will be back behind the bench on Saturday against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs after coming down with COVID-19.

“Just felt we’d rather get him rested up and hopefully be back for Saturday,” said Arniel. “Didn’t want to push it any harder.”

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