By Darrin Bauming (@DarrinBauming)
WINNIPEG — Call Saturday’s game at MTS Centre a victory lap.
With a Stanley Cup Playoff spot safely secured and nothing to be lost or gained in their regular season finalé, the Winnipeg Jets rested several veterans and dressed a skeleton crew for their 5-1 victory over the Calgary Flames.
With the likes of Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Mark Stuart, and Ondrej Pavelec among others getting the day off, it allowed the club’s black aces to play and rookies Connor Hellebuyck and Andrew Copp to dress for their first NHL games.
“It was pretty fun. I was really nervous and excited to start, obviously,” said Copp, who recorded an assist in his first professional game at any level. “This is something that is never going to happen again, so just enjoy (my) first time. But, obviously, you want to make a difference in the game and try to be a part of a win.”
The Flames, similarly playoff-bound, chose to rest many of their veterans as well, making it a tough game to play.
“You’d certainly like to clinch (a playoff spot) earlier, but you wouldn’t want to have to play too many of those,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “For both teams it was difficult. Not a lot of physicality in the game… But a good game for a lot of guys (who) haven’t played in a long time.”
When asked what Game 1 of the playoffs might look like in comparison, Maurice was succinct.
“Oh, night and day for everything. The intensity. They had their mainstays out. So did we. This one, we won’t over-assess it. Probably won’t watch it.”
Calgary opened the scoring just 33-seconds in with Michael Ferland being credited for a bouncing puck that found its way behind Jets backup goaltender Michael Hutchinson.
But Winnipeg trailed in this game for a mere moment as Drew Stafford‘s wristshot trickled through Flames backstop Joni Ortio just 15-seconds later.
Jets forward Michael Frolik tallied the eventual game-winner in the opening minute of the third period for his 19th of the season, while Lee Stempniak and Adam Lowry added to the lead with goals coming less than a minute apart in the early minutes of the frame to put the game out of reach. Matt Halischuk scored Winnipeg’s fifth goal with 1:01 remaining.
The Jets will likely begin their first-round playoff series on the road Thursday night against either the St. Louis Blues or Anaheim Ducks, depending how the two teams finish the season in either first or second place in the Western Conference.
“I think most guys will be looking in on the games tonight,” said Mark Scheifele of waiting to see who Winnipeg’s playoff opponent will be. “Whoever we get we’ll be ready for them. It’s definitely an exciting time right now for all of us to get a chance to get to the playoffs. It’s definitely going to be a lot of fun.”