Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Saturday's game had it all -- what a blast

Whole city in throes of agony and ecstasy

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Moments such as Saturday afternoon's are why this city clung to its NHL dream for 15 years while no one else believed Winnipeg and its Jets would one day be together again.

The drama was thick as wet cement by the end of the game, and as 15,004 got to their feet in an attempt to will their team to victory in the shootout, the promise of the NHL's return was fulfilled to the maximum.

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It was something to see, this weary crowd spent from an afternoon of up and downs, rising up once more to scream and stomp. The best little audience in hockey came to their feet one more time and pushed with all its might but couldn't get their way.

There, the emotion all came cascading down, to finally rest in a puddle of disappointment with an Islanders victory.

The Jets fell 5-4 to the visiting Islanders, picking up one point as they attempt to finagle their way into the post-season, as the clock on their regular season has now drawn down to three games.

Getting in, of course, is the destination, but the journey too should be savoured and Saturday's game was one worth living with its heightened emotion.

Jets fans were barely in the building when they began to hold their breath as they looked down on the warm-up skate to see no sign of Evander Kane and his No. 9.

Kane, however, made a dramatic game-time entrance as he stepped out on to the ice with the rest of the Jets.

The Jets gave no explanation for his pre-game absence but it's almost a certainty he was receiving medical attention and likely a load of painkiller by way of a needle.

The Jets have become accustomed to skating in front of a loud crowd, but Saturday's had a little more oomph than the norm. Jay Richardson's growling over the public address system to welcome the home side to the ice required a deeper push from his pipes to get the message over the throbbing bass pouring down from the stands.

Winnipeg's actors in this drama lived up to the magnitude of the moment in so many ways.

Eric Tangradi blocking four shots on one shift and then sitting on the bench sucking in air while the entire house chanted his name.

Kyle Wellwood finding some elusive offence, popping a pair of goals.

Bryan Little scoring in the final minutes with his goalie on the bench.

Andrew Ladd staving off defeat if only for a few seconds more, with a last-round goal in the shootout.

Defenceman Zach Bogosian, scoring an early goal and then taking a shoulder to the chin from Islanders forward Kyle Okposo, which would eventually lead to the Winnipeg player leaving the game with concussion symptoms.

There was something for everyone in this game.

The Islanders played their role in this act to perfection. From Okposo's villainous turn to one brilliant wave after another of offence. New York is a dangerous team and should they get to the post-season they'll be an upset in the making for one of the higher seeds.

Bogosian wouldn't leave immediately after the hit and late in the second period he and Okposo were about to settle their differences with a fist-fight when the linesmen intervened.

Bogosian, with his wild beard and a wilder look in his eyes, seared an image of rage upon this game which Jets fans won't soon forget.

The Islanders forced the Jets to chase from almost the beginning, taking an early lead, then pushing ahead by two goals in the middle frame before holding a slight edge deep into the third period.

With each surge made by the Islanders the Jets and their faithful were tested. Three times Winnipeg -- and I mean all of this city and not just the players -- pushed back.

Two goals in the second period from Wellwood sent the game to the third period equal at 3-3. Again the Islanders raised the stakes with a fourth goal and the Jets seemed unlikely to answer.

But a penalty to the Islanders with just over two minutes put the Jets on the power play and when play was set to resume coach Claude Noel threw his director's chair aside and strode into the scene. Noel boldly removed goalie Ondrej Pavelec from the net to give his team two extra attackers.

The ploy worked, as Little scored just seconds into the power play to even the game at 4-4 and force overtime.

A near-breathless crowd staggered into the extra session before finding their voice once again and pushing their team into near-victorious action.

Wellwood stared a hat trick and the winning goal right in the eyes before Islanders defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky slid into the crease to snatch away the puck and the win.

It seemed almost absurd there would be more to offer, but next came the shootout and all its built-in tension. The ebb and flow of the game moved the building to its loudest point before letting it all crash into quiet with the silencing stab of a loss.

The Jets now embark on a two-game road trip with their season still on the line. The results will determine if next Thursday's home finale has meaning or not.

But if Saturday's game was the last of the year that matters, it was a fitting way to go out. Full of spirit and angst and joy and pathos. It had it all. What a blast.

Twitter @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2013 B3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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