November 14, 2019

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Opinion

Inability to protect lead dooms Jets once again

<p>St. Louis Blues celebrate Tyler Bozak's game-winning goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period in Winnipeg on Wednesday.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

St. Louis Blues celebrate Tyler Bozak's game-winning goal against the Winnipeg Jets during the third period in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/4/2019 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/4/2019 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Maybe it was the way the Winnipeg Jets had struggled down the stretch, falling out of first place and appearing to come apart at the seams.

How about the surprising sight of some empty seats inside Bell MTS Place? A quick check of Ticketmaster just minutes before puck drop showed more than 60 tickets still available at prices ranging from $220 to $349. Even in a hockey-crazed market, unbridled passion may have a saturation point.

<p>Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little gets tripped up by St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz during the third period of the Jets' 2-1 playoff loss to the Blues on Wednesday.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little gets tripped up by St. Louis Blues' Jaden Schwartz during the third period of the Jets' 2-1 playoff loss to the Blues on Wednesday.

Perhaps it was just the collective worry of a fan base that has been conditioned to hope for the best, but expect the worst. It’s kind of a Winnipeg thing, don’t you think?

Whatever the case, something seemed to be missing Wednesday night as the Stanley Cup playoffs got underway. There just didn’t seem to be the same buzz that you’d usually expect around these parts.

There was no "just happy to be here, so let’s enjoy the ride" feeling, like when the Jets grabbed the final wild-card spot in 2014-15 and made their first post-season appearance since the NHL returned to Winnipeg before quickly bowing out in four straight games against the Anaheim Ducks.

Nor was there the same "we fully expect to win" swagger, like when Winnipeg finished second overall last season with a franchise-record 114 points, including an 11-1-0 run to conclude the regular season in which they often imposed their will on opponents, going three rounds deep into the playoffs.

No, this time it all feels a bit different for a team that seemingly limped into the post-season. It was as if 15,000 people were trying their best to be supportive while holding their collective breath at the same time, knowing something bad was probably just around the corner.

And, at least on the first night, all that nervous energy in the building proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Because, surprise, surprise, some of the same things that haunted this Jets team at various points this season made a return appearance, this time on a much bigger stage.

When the obituary is finally written on the 2018-19 season — and judging by Wednesday’s rather painful 2-1 loss, that may not be too far away — it will be Winnipeg’s inability to lock down a game that may be the primary cause of death.

Consider that on nine different occasions during the regular season, the Jets walked into their room after 40 minutes on the right side of the scoreboard, only to come away with a loss.

Five of those blown leads were in regulation, another four in overtime or a shootout. All told, that’s 14 points left on the table.

But none of the late-game implosions were as costly as the one Wednesday, when a 1-0 advantage heading into the final frame was wiped away courtesy of two St. Louis goals. Say goodbye to Game 1, and kiss home-ice advantage goodbye as well.

A tough, gritty and certainly confident St. Louis team came through in the clutch, while what appears to be a fragile Jets squad cracked under pressure. Again.

Connor Hellebuyck was on his game all night and did everything he could to give his team a chance to win. The defence was mostly solid, playing smart, safe hockey for the bulk of the night and limiting the big turnovers that are often costly.

Patrik Laine may have been Winnipeg’s best player, scoring the first goal of the night and coming close on several others, including a third-period post that would have given his team a 2-0 lead. Instead, the Blues dodged the potential bullet and struck back, twice.

No, this time it was the top line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor who were mostly invisible. They had a combined five shots on goal, but none of the real dangerous variety save for one. On a night when the team could have used a goal from that trio, they came up empty.

The biggest impact Scheifele had was steamrolling St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington just 34 seconds into the game, sending the rookie flying and touching off a bit of a melee that had the fans in a full-throated frenzy.

If you bet the "under" on when the first "refs you suck" chant would take place, congratulations. Because it happened as Scheifele was sent to the sin bin and St. Louis got an early power play.

The Jets killed that one off, and two more early penalties that followed. Winnipeg seemed to feed off the early adversity, hitting everything in a white sweater. Laine took a huge run at Joel Edmundson. Ben Chiarot tried to take Vince Dunn’s head off. Tyler Myers drilled Zach Sanford.

It was starting to look like perhaps this really would be their night, especially when Laine’s rocket of a goal stood up heading into the final frame.

But then David Perron tied the game just over four minutes into the third, his shot finding its way through a maze of traffic.

You could almost feel the air come out of the building. And the Jets, too. They’ve seen this movie play out far too often. And they know how it ends. Head coach Paul Maurice admitted as much, saying his team got "a little tight with the puck" once the score was even.

Tyler Bozak finally did the deed, playing the role of villain and firing the winner with just 2:05 to play.

The Jets had one final push with Hellebuyck on the bench for an extra attacker, and Scheifele nearly fired one past Binnington with 12 seconds left. The rookie had the last laugh on this night.

Calm and cool under pressure, just like his teammates. They could all exhale, and breathe a sigh of relief.

As for the Jets? Things just got a whole lot tighter around here. And they may soon be running out of air.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

 

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

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