When Patrik Laine wove his magic on Sunday, swooping in front of the net and cradling the hard, just-off-the-ice pass with the blade of his stick, it was a thing of beauty.
The puck nestled onto the firm blade of the Winnipeg Jets sniper like a ball into a first baseman’s glove.
And then, in the blink of an eye – as Laine was drifting backward on his skates – it was gone, rifled past the unsuspecting Jordan Binnington, the rookie goaltender for the St. Louis Blues.
The goal occurred early in the second period on Sunday night and showed as much skill as you will see from any player in the NHL.
More important, the goal was Laine’s third in the Jets’ three playoff games against the Blues, a good sign that his end-of-regular-season scoring drought is in his rear-view mirror.
And it is welcome news for the Jets, who are fighting back in their opening-round Western Conference playoff series.
“The fact he's scoring now is a great sign for us,” Winnipeg winger Bryan Little said of his teammate on Monday.
With Laine’s help, the Jets upended the Blues 6-3 at Enterprise Center. The Blues still lead the best-of-seven series 2-1, which resumes with Game 4 in St. Louis on Tuesday night.
After dropping two, tightly fought one-goal games on home ice, it was critical for Winnipeg to win Sunday. Only four teams in NHL playoff history have battled back to win a playoff after falling behind 0-3.
Laine said it is gratifying to be contributing. But falling behind the way the Jets have has left a sour taste.
“That’s not the way we wanted to start these playoffs,” Laine said. “For me, it really doesn’t matter. I scored three games in a row but we’re still down 2-1. So it doesn’t make it any better.
“But we’ll see when the series is over, where we’re at and where I’m at as a player. Like I said before, it’s fun to score, but it’s even more fun to win. [Sunday] was a lot of fun to win, and hopefully we can win again.”
Laine turns 21 on Friday and is an NHL sensation, having scored at least 30 goals in each of his first three seasons.
But his path to 30 this year was difficult. He scored only one goal over his final 19 games of the regular season as the Jets stumbled down the stretch.
With Laine having rediscovered his scoring eye, the Jets are more confident.
“He’s playing the game and he’s playing it hard,” teammate Nikolaj Ehlers said. “He’s going out and he’s finishing hits, putting pucks deep, going down and getting the pucks and shooting, That’s his game.
“The way he’s playing right now is fun to watch, and he’s got to keep doing that.”
Over the years, Laine has prospered against St. Louis. Including these playoffs, he has scored 16 goals in 15 games against the Blues.
“Sixteen goals in 15 games?” Ehlers said with a raised eyebrow. “Not bad.”
Along with Laine, the Jets are also getting solid contributions from Dustin Byfuglien, their 6-foot-5, 260-pound winger who played like a one-man wrecking crew on Sunday.
Byfuglien, who was limited to just 42 games this season because of an injury, had a goal and an assist in Sunday’s win, and was involved in several on-ice skirmishes. It seems Winnipeg is starting to get its money’s worth from a player who will make US$8-million this year.
“He missed half a year, and for a big man, sometimes it takes those guys a little while to get going,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “It doesn’t for him. He’s been able to come back off injuries and not look like he’s missed a beat.
“He’s a special athlete, for sure. You’re talking about our highest-paid player, right. He’s an impact guy and he’s rare. To be that physical and that strong, and he’s offensively gifted, so when he’s going, you’ve got a much better chance of winning.”
Blues coach Craig Berube was not happy with his team’s passivity on Sunday, especially when the Jets were mounting the attack.
“We’ve got to be tighter,” he said. “We’ve got to be more desperate at getting on the puck carrier and eliminating the play right away, close it out quicker. We didn’t close things out quick enough [in Sunday’s game].”