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Opinion

It'll take a miracle for Jets to capture this series

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal, middle, and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, right, collide with Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck during the third period of Game 4 of the NHL hockey Western Conference finals Friday, May 18, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)</p>

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal, middle, and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, right, collide with Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck during the third period of Game 4 of the NHL hockey Western Conference finals Friday, May 18, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — There’s no sugar-coating this: with a 3-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights Friday night, the Winnipeg Jets’ electrifying Stanley Cup run this spring is, if not technically over, then very definitely on life support.

The numbers speak for themselves: in the long history of the semifinal round of the NHL playoffs, 67 teams have held, as the Knights now do, a 3-1 lead in best-of-seven series. Sixty-six of those teams went on to win the series, according to whowins.com.

Those are terrible odds — and all the white in the world won’t change them.

Now, it is a truism that everything about this Jets team defies the odds. The fact they exist at all is a long shot, playing as they do in the smallest building in the smallest market on the most windswept prairie in the NHL, a prairie the NHL had already forsaken once before.

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LAS VEGAS — There’s no sugar-coating this: with a 3-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights Friday night, the Winnipeg Jets’ electrifying Stanley Cup run this spring is, if not technically over, then very definitely on life support.

The numbers speak for themselves: in the long history of the semifinal round of the NHL playoffs, 67 teams have held, as the Knights now do, a 3-1 lead in best-of-seven series. Sixty-six of those teams went on to win the series, according to whowins.com.

Those are terrible odds — and all the white in the world won’t change them.

Now, it is a truism that everything about this Jets team defies the odds. The fact they exist at all is a long shot, playing as they do in the smallest building in the smallest market on the most windswept prairie in the NHL, a prairie the NHL had already forsaken once before.

So if you’re looking for a sliver of hope in the darkness of a Jets team that has now lost three straight, there it is — if the Jets somehow find a way to turn this series around, it would be only the second greatest miracle in franchise history.

The greatest miracle, of course, happened May 31, 2011 when Mark Chipman stood at a podium and announced this thing would happen at all.

So yeah, hope springs eternal, even in a series in which the Jets are getting owned by a Vegas team that is their inferior in every way but the two that matter most — in goal and on the scoreboard.

For the third straight game, Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was superb, stopping 35 of 37 shots. For the third straight game in a row, Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck, well, wasn’t.

You can dissect what’s gone wrong for the Jets in this series a myriad of ways — poor starts; too many turnovers; no secondary scoring; a couple of very costly penalties; and no answers for a Knights top line that the Jets have somehow made look like the second coming of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson.

But really, the difference in this series has been goaltending and the fact that for one of the very few times all season long, Winnipeg hasn’t had the better goaltender.

Now, some of that has been the spectacular play of Fleury, a man who has already won three Stanley Cups and seems determined to win a fourth, even if he has to do it all by himself.

I’m not sure vintage Ken Dryden, Grant Fuhr and Martin Brodeur could have outplayed Fleury these last three games.

And the problem for the Jets has been that Hellebuyck hasn’t even been vintage Hellebuyck.

For the second straight game, the Jets fell behind early only to later tie the game. For the second straight game, Hellebuyck misplayed a puck less than a minute after the Jets scored that resulted in the Knights quickly regaining the lead.

Wednesday night, it was a Hellebuyck giveaway behind the net that led to the go-ahead Knights goal. Friday night, it was a soft shot that Hellebuyck could have gloved and held but instead put back into play, leading to the go-ahead goal seconds later.

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal, left, celebrates the team's 3-2 win with Marc-Andre Fleury after Game 4 of the NHL hockey Western Conference finals agains the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, May 18, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)</p>

Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal, left, celebrates the team's 3-2 win with Marc-Andre Fleury after Game 4 of the NHL hockey Western Conference finals agains the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, May 18, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Jets would later get that one back to tie the game 2-2, but then surrender the game-winner midway through the third period, this time on a Dustin Byfuglien giveaway that sent Knights forward Reilly Smith in on Hellebuyck, beating him blocker side from the top of the faceoff circle.

It wasn’t an easy shot to handle, but it was the kind of save we’ve seen Hellebuyck make hundreds of times this season.

But not on this night and not really on any night in this series other than the first one.

Hellebuyck insisted after Game 3 — all evidence to the contrary — that he still liked his game better than Fleury’s. "I like my game. I like it a lot more."

As a general proposition, there’s some validity to that. Hellebuyck plays big, square and soft. Fleury plays like his hair is on fire.

But in this series? If this was a goalie fight, they’d stop it.

Now, none of this is to Hellebuyck’s shame. The man has been the most valuable player on the Jets all season long and he is, for my money, the only reason this team has gotten this far.

His timing leaves a lot to be desired, but if anyone was entitled to have a couple of off nights, it’s the guy who has been so good all year long.

But instead of picking up their goaltender in his rare moment of need, the rest of this Jets team, with a couple of notable exceptions, has instead hung him out to dry.

Consider: the Jets scored an average of 3.6 goals per game in winning their first two series. This series, they’ve scored just nine goals over four games, an average of just 2.25 goals a game.

That might have been enough if Hellebuyck had been his usual sensational self; it’s not nearly enough in the present circumstances.

Jets forward Mathieu Perreault told reporters Friday morning that Game 4 was a "must win" for his team. It’s hard to disagree.

So what now? Well, the sun will come up and these two teams will play a Game 5 Sunday afternoon in front of a whiteout.

The numbers — and the history of NHL teams in this situation — suggests a Jets franchise that was born from a miracle now needs another one.

Maybe. Or maybe they just a need a lot less giveaways, a few more goals and a lot more support for a goaltender who could desperately use some right now.

Vegas? Seriously?

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

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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