No ifs, ands or, especially, butts — that one leaves a mark on the Whiteout

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It was a loss, but more than anything it was a monumental lost opportunity.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/05/2018 (1671 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was a loss, but more than anything it was a monumental lost opportunity.

And if the Winnipeg Jets season comes to an end in the next week, a lot sooner than a city draped in white is hoping, it will be the events of Thursday night at Bell MTS Place — and Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne’s Immaculate Butt-end, in particular — that will haunt fans for years to come.

It is impossible to overstate just how costly the Jets 2-1 loss to Nashville in Game 4 of their best-of-seven series is to this city’s chances of seeing a Stanley Cup hoisted at Portage and Main next month.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban celebrates his goal against the Winnipeg Jets' as Dustin Byfuglien looks at the scoreboard during the second period of game four in Winnipeg on Thursday.

Consider the numbers:

The Jets came into Thursday’s game with a 2-1 series lead that — all other things being equal, which they pretty much are in this series — gave Winnipeg a 61-per-cent chance of winning the series, according to one probability study that looked at every NHL playoff series between 1942 and 2015.

Had the Jets gone on to win Thursday night, they would have taken a 3-1 series stranglehold and their odds of winning the series would have jumped to 88 per cent, according to the same study.

But instead, with the Jets’ loss, the series is tied 2-2 and it is now Nashville — who host two of the final three games of this series, including Game 5 Saturday night — who have a 60 per cent chance to go on to the Western Conference final.

And so with that, the difference for the Jets between winning and losing Thursday night wasn’t just about one game in a seven-game series; it was the difference between being an overwhelming favourite to put the best team in the NHL in their rear-view mirror versus being a statistically significant underdog with that same yellow-clad President’s Cup-winning obstacle still very much in front of them.

With the Jets’ loss, the series is tied 2-2 and it is now Nashville– who host two of the final three games of this series, including Game 5 Saturday night — who have a 60 per cent chance to go on to the Western Conference final.

There is no more painful question in all of sports than “what If?” and Winnipeg sports fans, as tortured a bunch as you will find anywhere in North America, have spent a generation of haunted nights pondering that one:

What if Jamie Macoun hadn’t broken Dale Hawerchuk’s ribs with that vicious cross-check? What if Kevin Glenn hadn’t broken his arm while leading the Blue Bombers to the Grey Cup? What if Mike O’Shea had simply gone for it on third-and-four?

And now, you can add to that list: What if Rinne’s butt-end hadn’t come to rest — upside-down, no less — in precisely the same path as a puck off the stick of Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey was sliding to an open Nashville net for what would have been the first goal of the game?

I will tell you “what if”: it would have been an entirely different game, and one which the Jets — in all likelihood — would have won, given their dominating record — 42-5-6 — when they scored first this season.

Instead, it was the Predators who took the lead Thursday night and then spent the rest of the night clogging the neutral zone with a style of hockey that was both incredibly boring and frighteningly efficient at neutralizing everything the Jets threw at them the rest of the night.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Nashville Predators' P.K. Subban (76) celebrates after Subban scoring against the Winnipeg Jets' during second period NHL playoff hockey action during game 4 of the second round, Thursday, May 3, 2018.

I say “frighteningly” because what was on display for much of Thursday night looked a whole lot like the moment someone in the NHL finally figured out how to neutralize all the speed and skill that have made the Jets the offensive juggernaut they have been this season.

And so, little wonder the message out of the Jets dressing room after the game was an almost delusional, “What, me worry?”

I’m not sure whether they were trying to convince us or themselves, but from captain Blake Wheeler, to veteran Bryan Little, to head coach Paul Maurice, the Jets were united behind a message after the game and that message was: “No, there was nothing special about what Nashville did against us, why do you ask?” And also, “No, Nashville didn’t just discover our kryptonite and, also, I have to go now.”

All I know is Preds’ head coach Peter Laviolette clearly made adjustments after watching his club squander a three-goal lead in Game 3 and those adjustments worked very, very well on a night his club outshot Winnipeg 16-2 from the midway point of the second period to the midway point of the third period when the Preds were nursing a 2-0 lead and the game was still up for grabs.

The bottom line for the Jets heading into Game 5 is this: in a series that is being decided by the thinnest of margins — that Predators’ double-overtime goal in Game 2; Filip Forsberg ringing one off the post early in the second period in Game 3 that would have given the Preds a 4-0 lead; that Rinne butt-end — it’s Nashville that’s increasingly on the right side of the margins that matter most.

If the Jets are going to reclaim the advantage in this series Saturday in Music City, it is going to have to begin with them figuring out a way to draw first blood again.

And that begins with scoring the first goal of the game, which the Predators have done in each of the last three games. The Preds won two of those three and should have won the third. If the Jets are going to reclaim the advantage in this series Saturday in Music City, it is going to have to begin with them figuring out a way to draw first blood again.

Because the alternative is ugly — spending another night staring at five bright yellow defenders lined up across their own blue line.

Now, make no mistake, this is all still very doable; the Jets opened the series with a victory in Nashville and took the Predators to double OT in Game 2 there.

Plus, no team has yet won two consecutive games in the series, a trend that would bode well for the Jets if it keeps up.

But just understand that the road to hoisting a Stanley Cup at Portage and Main was always going to be a long one and it got a lot longer — and a whole lot bumpier — with Thursday’s loss.

Nashville Predators' Yannick Weber (7), Miikka Salomaki (20), Mike Fisher (12) and Ryan Hartman (38) celebrate Hartman's goal against the Winnipeg Jets during first period NHL round-two game four playoff action in Winnipeg on Thursday, May 3, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

This team has been an incredible gift to this city this season, a party that started way back in October that has reached a feverish pitch in the first week in May.

And you cannot help but get the feeling that if the Jets can somehow overcome the odds over the next few days, the rest of a Stanley Cup-run would be easy, by comparison.

But that’s a big “if” and a big “but” in a series that, when the history is finally written, might yet come down to the butt-end of a goalie’s stick.

It is the stuff of nightmares for a city that, until now, has been living a dream.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

The road to hoisting a Stanley Cup at Portage and Main was always going to be a long one and it got a lot longer– and a whole lot bumpier — with Thursday’s loss.

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Nashville Predators' celebrate defeating the Winnipeg Jets' at the end of the third period of NHL playoff hockey action during Game 4 of the second round Thursday.
Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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