It wasn’t officially the playoff dagger, but it was a knife perfectly planted squarely between the shoulder blades that has left the Winnipeg Jets bleeding like a gored bull.
And the masked man brandishing the weapon Saturday night at MTS Centre in a 3-2 win by the Carolina Hurricanes over the Jets?
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Canes netminder Cam Ward — who made a half-dozen ‘no-he-didn’t’ saves that left Jets players, Bryan Little in particular, cursing his name and gazing in disbelief at the heavens.
"I’ve seen that guy in net do that," said Jets’ coach Paul Maurice. "There’s two guys on our bench that have. I’ve seen it (when he coached the Hurricanes, previously) and (assistant coach) Charlie Huddy said he’s seen it up close and personal in 2006 (when the Edmonton Oilers lost to Carolina in the Stanley Cup).
"Cam Ward is the story of this hockey game. He was the best player on the ice. He was good. He was spectacular."
The stats sheet will show that Ward stopped 33 of 35 shots on the night but it was the quality of those saves that should have had him named the game’s first, second and third star. His biggest might have been one of his earliest, as he absolutely robbed Little just 7:15 into the game by reaching across a gaping net to stop a shot with his stick.
"I had a couple in the first period, but that one where he got his stick on it when I had the open net... that’s probably the biggest save anyone has made on me in my career," said Little. "I have an empty net, I’m shooting it right in the middle and he got his stick on it. It was probably bugging me for the better part of the game, to say the least."
But there were plenty more after that, too.
"We had a number of Grade-A scoring chances and he was there get a paddle on it... or a blocker, a glove, a toe, a pad...," said Jim Slater who, along with Little, were the only Jets to beat Ward. "We had some good pressure and he made some really good saves."
GREAT START, AWFUL MIDDLE, FRANTIC FINISH
The Jets were all over a Canes squad which fell 3-2 in Chicago Friday night in the opening period — out-shooting Carolina 13-6 — but couldn’t beat Ward.
And then came a horrendous stretch covering 2:53 in the second period in which the Jets, who had opened the scoring, gave up three consecutive goals on a series of defensive miscues and miscommunication, and some iffy netminding by Al Montoya.
"There was five, seven-eight minutes in the second period where the game got away from me," said Montoya. "I don’t know what it was, the puck just didn’t want to get to me. At the end of the day, I hold myself responsible. I expect more from myself and I will expect more."
"He will feel that because he’s got a front-row seat to how the guy at the other end is playing," added Maurice when told of Montoya’s guilt. "So, it’s magnified and I don’t think it’s fair."
Compounding matters was the fact the Jets lost 14 face-offs in the second period, causing them to chase the game even more.
"I don’t know if we were tight," said Little, "but it was just one of those things where they get the lead and the whole bench kinda gasped because of the importance of the game. You get behind right now and it kinda feels like the end of the world. That’s why we came in at the end of the second period and said it’s not acceptable. We’ve got to be up on the bench, stay positive and try to battle back."
Out-shot 21-8 in the second, the Jets peppered Ward with 14 shots in the third. Little’s 21st pulled Winnipeg to within a goal at 3-2, but a Mark Stuart goal that would have tied the game at the 7:29 mark was disallowed when the officials ruled Dustin Byfuglien had interfered with Ward.
THE ABSOLUTELY FRIGHTENING ROAD AHEAD
Their season hanging in the balance, the Jets now head out on a five-game road trip with stops in Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Phoenix.
Asked how hard this loss will be felt heading into that trip, Blake Wheeler resisted the temptation to begin penning the obituary just yet.
"We have a big game in Dallas on Monday," he said. "Worry about the next one. This is going to sting tonight like all losses do. But we’ve got 10 games left so we’ve got to rebound."