Despite a season to remember, opportunity slipped away from Jets


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There is, of course, always next year.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/05/2018 (1719 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There is, of course, always next year.

But don’t kid yourself — it won’t be like this year. Because nothing, ever again, will be quite like this year. Not really, anyway.

That’s because a hockey team and the city they represent came together over the past five weeks in an utterly unique moment of time and that team — and this city — will never be quite the same again.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets salute their fans after losing game five and the NHL Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights in Winnipeg on Sunday, May 20, 2018.

We’re both better for the experience: the Winnipeg Jets got the last major ingredient they were missing — playoff experience; and Winnipeg got the ingredient we were missing — a little respect.

So yeah, no regrets, even if a 2-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at Bell MTS Place Sunday afternoon eliminated the Jets 4-1 in the Western Conference Final, just when the impossible was finally starting to seem possible.

The team left it all out on the ice and this city left it all out on the streets. If there was more the city could have done, I’m not sure what it would have been.

But while you’re pondering the great ride this has been and all the wonderful possibilities that still might be for this young Jets team, make no mistake: in addition to being an utterly unique moment in time, this was also an utterly unique opportunity squandered by the Jets.

After a dream season, the Jets were handed a dream trip through these Stanley Cup playoffs that even the most diehard of Jets fans couldn’t have drawn up — and which will be unlikely to be replicated any season soon.

Looking out Sunday afternoon at the sight of Jets captain Blake Wheeler brought to a knee on the Jets blue line as the Knights celebrated a victory that seemed to surprise them just as much as everyone else, I couldn’t help but wonder if years from now, we all wonder if this was the golden opportunity missed.

Consider the breaks these Jets caught through three rounds of playoffs:

First up was an injury depleted Minnesota Wild team missing their two best players — defenceman Ryan Suter, who broke his leg just before the playoffs began and forward Zach Parise, who broke his sternum in Game 3.

A healthy Wild team was going to have a hard time beating these Jets; the injury ravaged version went down quickly and relatively painlessly, four games to one.

And then no sooner did the Jets coast through the Wild then they had the good fortune of catching the Nashville Predators at a time when their goaltender, Pekka Rinne, was struggling mightily.

Rinne will almost certainly win the Vezina for his regular season performance this season, but he was awful against the Jets. Rinne got pulled three times in a seven-game series and didn’t even get out of the first period in the seventh and deciding game.

And then having put both the Wild and Rinne behind them, the Jets were presented with a first-year expansion team as the last thing standing between them and a Stanley Cup final.

Yeah, Vegas is no ordinary expansion team. A 109-point season proved that point and the Knights drove it home in the conference final by winning four straight after a Game 1 loss, posting two of those victories at Bell MTS Place.

But still: Vegas as your conference final opponent? There’s no team in the league that wouldn’t have taken that draw.

Now, about those Jets losses on home ice: Let the record show that for all the self-congratulating we did about the fearsome power of our Whiteout, the Jets lost four out of their last five games at home, including two of three in the Conference final.

If the Jets opponents were supposed to be intimidated by the sight and sound of all our fans clad in white, well, someone forgot to tell the Jets opponents.

Indeed, when you look back on what went wrong for the Jets in this series, you could distill it down to literally everything that was right for them the rest of year — their home record, their goaltending, their goal-scoring, their ability to respond after losses and their power play — all going south when it mattered most.

Consider Connor Hellebuyck’s numbers: he posted a .924 save percentage during the regular season, a .924 save percentage against Minnesota, a .929 save percentage against Nashville and a .906 save percentage against Vegas.

Let’s play the Sesame Street game: Which of those numbers don’t belong together, which of those numbers aren’t kind of the same?

Now, all of that might not have been so bad if only the Jets offence had shown up against Vegas. But a Jets attack that was second only to Tampa Bay in goals scored during the regular season was MIA in the conference final, mustering just 10 goals in five games against a red-hot Marc Andre Fleury.

That’s a joke — and it’s on us.

And then there’s the Jets power play, which was fifth in the NHL during the regular season, clicking at a cool 23.4 percent rate, only to disappear over the last three games, going just 1-10 in that stretch and 0-4 in the fifth and ultimately deciding game.

And while you’re pondering all that, ponder this: the last time the Jets lost four games in a row in regulation as they did against Vegas was in February — of 2017.

Put all that together and that’s most of the best things about this Jets team all vaporizing at once and at the absolute worst possible time.

If even half those things remained as good against Vegas as they’d been against everyone else all year long, this series would still be ongoing. If they’d all shown up — as they did for the Jets in a Game 1 Jets shellacking of Vegas — this series would be over and it’d be the Jets moving on to the final.

But instead, it’s yet another off-season in this town of wondering what if and what might have been.

It was, to be sure, a great ride. And hey, maybe the Hockey News was right all along: it’s going to be next year, not this year, that the Jets win the Stanley Cup and finally end a Stanley Cup drought for this country that with Winnipeg’s loss on Sunday is now being measured in quarter-centuries.

But if you think just because the Jets put together a deep playoff run this year, they’re a shoe-in to do so again next year, you might want to check in with fans of the Edmonton Oilers on how that turned out for them this season.

There’s a lot of contracts expiring on this Jets team, a lot of players are owed big raises and there’s changes coming for this Jets team, not all of them for the better.

Opportunities like this one don’t come along everyday, as sports fans in Winnipeg know better than almost anyone else.

And the Jets let this one slip away.


Twitter: @PaulWiecek

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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