A penchant for blowing third-period leads was the Achilles heel of the Winnipeg Jets during the regular season — and the squad was tripped up by it again Wednesday night. This time, though, they face-planted in a pivotal post-season opener.
Winnipeg let a one-goal lead evaporate in the third period as the St. Louis Blues rallied for a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of their first-round NHL playoff series before a boisterous, white-clad crowd at Bell MTS Place.
Game 2 is set for Friday, 8:30 p.m. at the downtown arena.
A rocket by Patrik Laine that beat Blues rookie goalie Jordan Binnington with less than seven minutes left in the first period was mammoth.
But Blues forwards David Perron and Tyler Bozak both found mesh behind goalie Connor Hellebuyck in the final frame as St. Louis drew first blood in the best-of-seven series.
Bozak’s game-winner came with just 2:05 left in the game, a crushing end for the hosts who had played defensively sound for two periods. But they lacked energy in the final frame, while the Blues found new life — looking as if they’d teased the hosts with a bit of rope-a-dope for most the game.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler said there were so many positives that it served no purpose to be overly dejected
"It was real good. The crowd was into it. I thought everything was good. They made one more play than we did," he said. "We were trying to be physical throughout. We’re a big team, skate well, and want to try to take away their time and space.
"They sprung a couple (in the third). We’d like to clean that up. But our goalie made some big saves. Obviously, they won that period."
Nine times during the regular season the Jets led after 40 minutes, only to let a victory slip away. That was tied with the Florida Panthers for most in the league.
The tying and winning goals came on the Blues’ ability to finally penetrate the Jets zone with authority. Perron’s goal came off a defensive-zone faceoff loss by Andrew Copp, while Bozak slipped through some sloppy coverage and finished off a slick feed from Patrick Maroon.
"The first five minutes of that second and probably that back half of the third period, we weren’t moving through the neutral zone with speed or patience," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. "But correctable things and part of the experience of learning that you have to go through."
Neither Hellebuyck nor the man he faced across the ice faced a barrage of shots but had to be sharp on several occasions.
Hellebuyck snapped out a glove to rob Bozak on a great opportunity earlier in the third. He finished with 24 saves, equal to Binnington’s final total.
"It was a hard, grinding game, just like we expected. Our details were good. The majority of the game was good. That easily could have went our way," said Hellebuyck. "But, you know, that’s how playoffs go. It’s just one. It’s not four. We’re going to get right back at it and continue fighting.
"I felt good, I was seeing it well. It’s a testament to the guys in front of me. They were blocking a lot of shots, keeping it to the outside, allowing me to see it. They played really good tonight and it’s unfortunate we didn’t get it."
Binnington’s only blemish was on the blistering wrister by Laine that sent Jets fans into a frenzy.
Through a number of permutations and combinations, Laine and Bryan Little haven’t found any consistent chemistry together since the young Finn joined the Jets. But the veteran centre made a brilliant play in the Blues’ zone, stopping on a dime, spinning and then finding Laine cruising through the high slot.
Laine, arguably the Jets most engaged forward, snapped a six-game scoring drought. He had just one goal in his last 19 games prior to Wednesday.
But he was more concerned about a necessity for his team to clean up its act late in games.
"Yeah, it’s always tough to lose the game in the third. That should be our focus in the future, to focus on those third periods and not always give up the lead," Laine said.
"We’ve had a couple of those where they score the winning goal in the last two minutes. So, it’s always tough. But that’s how it goes sometimes. We still had two minutes to tie the game but couldn’t do it. We’ve got to focus on the next game."
The Blues turned their season around after Christmas and were one of the league’s premier squads in the second half, generating success on a tidy defensive scheme and timely scoring.
But the Jets stripped a page from their playbook through two periods, severely limiting the Blues’ ability to maintain possession in Winnipeg territory and create quality chances.
"Real tight, and that’s what we expect," said Wheeler. "We expect it’s going to go seven (games), and seven real close games. It didn’t go our way tonight."
Winnipeg’s biggest bodies also used their stature to pound the Blues along the wall. Blue-liners Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot all unloaded heavy bodychecks in the opening 20 minutes, and the hosts led 36-21 in the hit department by the final whistle.
Winnipeg’s penalty killers had a splendid night, erasing a Blues power-play chance in the first period and two more in the middle frame.
The Jets couldn’t cash in on their lone power-play opportunity late in the second, although Byfuglien rattled a post on a blast from the point.
The first solid hit of the game? An unlikely delivery man and and even more unlikely recipient. Just 34 seconds into the game, Scheifele burst to the net, slipped past the right post and collided heavily with Binnington, who was scrambling from the rear of the cage to his crease.
Winnipeg’s leading goal scorer (38) in the regular season was handed a minor for goalie interference but had to contend with the furor of Brayden Schenn first.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at 10:09 PM CDT: Updates photo captions.
11:08 PM: Full write through
11:18 PM: Adds quotes.
12:02 AM: Final version, adds photo