They were down and out before the puck had even dropped, at least in the eyes of plenty of hockey pundits and fans who figured this first-round playoff series would be short and not very sweet for the Winnipeg side.
And the Jets, it appears, took that personally. How else to explain a remarkable, some would say improbable, 4-1 victory on Wednesday night over the heavily favoured Edmonton Oilers that gives the Jets a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven playoff series.
Not only did Paul Maurice's crew keep the NHL's two leading scorers, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, off the scoresheet, they got production from some of the most unlikely sources, the kind that always seem to emerge this time of year when Lord Stanley is on the line.
Taxi squad staple Dominic Toninato, who failed his training camp medical due to lingering effects of COVID-19 and was only in the lineup because of injuries to Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois, notched the game-winner midway through the final frame off a nifty deflection on a shot by Logan Stanley, a rookie blue-liner who had been written off as a first-round bust by many critics.
Third-pairing defenceman Tucker Poolman, who also tested positive following opening night and just returned from injury, scored his first Stanley Cup playoff goal earlier in the game to tie it. Fourth-line veteran Nate Thompson, who has spoken openly in the past about his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, assisted on both tallies from Toninato and Poolman.
Sports truly is the best reality show going.
"That’s playoffs, man. If you’re going to have success in the playoffs, you’re going to have guys step up," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
Throw in 32 saves from reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, who turned 28 on Wednesday, and empty-net goals from Kyle Connor and Wheeler and you have all the ingredients for success. And then some.
"Today has been an exciting day for me. Everyone around the rink has been making me feel real happy about my birthday. This is the perfect way to celebrate it. And I just thought it was a good team game. Our details were right and I thought our offensive game came when it needed to. So, it was a great team win," said Hellebuyck.
The Jets limped into the playoffs, going just 3-9-0 in their final dozen regular-season games while also going just 2-7-0 against the Oilers this year, including six straight regulation losses in which they scored just seven combined goals. Without top-six forwards in Ehlers and Dubois, who skated Wednesday in non-contact jerseys, they aren't being given much of a chance outside their own room.
Winnipeg and Edmonton had to sit around for the first four nights of the playoffs, watching the dozen U.S.-based clubs get to have all the fun. With the North Division finally getting the green light — the NHL wanted to have Calgary and Vancouver finish their meaningless regular-season tilts first — they didn't waste any time trying to get momentum going right away.
The glass was rattling and the bodies flying in the opening frame, with Winnipeg dishing out a whopping 31 hits to Edmonton's 19. To put that in perspective, the Jets season-high for an entire game was 43, which they surpassed around the midway mark of this one. They finished with 68.
Stanley (team-high eight), Adam Lowry and Neal Pionk were especially noticeable. Pionk quickly got under the skin of McDavid, catching him with a check later in the first period which led to a big scrum after the buzzer, the pair throwing a few gloved punches at each other. If the Jets are to stand a chance in the series, getting physical with the best player on the planet is a must.
After a scoreless first period, Edmonton came out much stronger in the middle frame, firing eight of the first nine shots and getting the game's first goal at 8:24. After a turnover by Dylan DeMelo, Tyson Barrie took a point shot that hit a maze of traffic in front and bounced right to Jesse Puljujarvi, who buried it past a surprised Hellebuyck.
The lead was short-lived, as Poolman went hard to the net and cashed in a rebound off a Blake Wheeler shot at 11:01.
The turning point came at 9:14 of the third period when Stanley fired a hard shot from the point that appeared to hit the crossbar and stay out. Play continued until the buzzer sounded inside Rogers Place, signalling the NHL had reviewed the play and deemed the puck actually went in the net.
"I couldn't really see the initial shot. The sound it made sounded like a post. I kinda was in the corner. The buzzer went, and I thought there was a scrum by our bench. As I got closer the guys were celebrating so I threw my arms in the air and gave Dom a big hug," said Stanley.
Replays showed Toninato got his stick on it, deflecting it by Mike Smith. Toninato, the 27-year-old from Duluth who has five regular-season goals in 87 career games and only made his Jets debut last week, now has one memorable playoff marker in this truly unforgettable season.
"I had COVID back in November, and you have to pass a test to be able to get back on the ice. We did some tests when I got up here, and they thought they found something that wasn't good. So I had to sit out a bit. It turns out it wasn't what we initially thought it was, so I was able to get back a lot sooner," said Toninato.
He joked all those extra reps on the taxi squad this year without playing — save for a three-game conditioning assignment to the Manitoba Moose where he scored three goals — clearly paid off.
"I don't think doubt was getting in there. A couple other emotions, but you've got to make the most out of every situation. Just enjoying coming to the rink every day, being with the guys and working on my game. Happy to get the opportunity now," said Toninato.
"I gotta say it was all the practising on the taxi squad. Worked on all those little skills, the tips, just the things you can't really work on in a normal season. So I'll attribute it to that."
McDavid and Draisaitl started the night on separate lines, but Oilers coach Dave Tippett paired them together on numerous occasions, looking to find a spark in the latter stages of the game. It didn't work, as Scheifele's line frustrated the dynamic duo all night.
Connor, at 18:13, and Wheeler, at 18:45, iced it with Smith on the bench for an extra attacker. Scheifele assisted on both goals.
"That’s what you expect come playoffs. It’s not going to be easy for them," Hellebuyck said of keeping McDavid and Draisaitl in check. "Can’t make it easy for them. We know they are going to come with some fire next game, need to come prepared for that."
Game 2 goes Friday night in Edmonton before the series shifts back to Winnipeg for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Monday.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.