ST. LOUIS — A season that began with so much promise has ended with a dud. And a Winnipeg Jets team many had pegged for a possible Stanley Cup parade is instead facing a lengthy off-season to figure out where things went wrong following a first-round playoff exit.
It officially came to an end Saturday night in St. Louis, as the Blues skated to a 3-2 victory to capture the best-of-seven series in six games. The score flattered the Jets, who appeared resigned to their fate right from the opening puck drop. Exhibit A: giving up a goal just 23 seconds into the game.
Jaden Schwartz, who was the Game 5 hero by scoring the winner with 15 seconds left to play, carried that momentum over to the opening shift. And the Jets, it seems, could never recover.
"(Expletive) off. Please, come on, man. This is a tough trophy to win. Maybe our best just wasn't good enough today. And their best was pretty darn good," captain Blake Wheeler said when asked if he expected better from his group.
Schwartz, the young winger from Wilcox, Sask., was a one-man wrecking ball, scoring on a second-period power play and early again in the third period for the natural hat trick, giving his team a big lead. The Jets fought back with two late goals, but it was too little, too late.
"Obviously not the start you want to have. At the same time, you look at the clock and know there’s 59 (minutes) to go. It wasn’t what we wanted to see happen, but there was lots of game left at that point. We just weren’t able to get our game going early enough. . . to give ourselves a chance to win," said defenceman Josh Morrissey.
Winnipeg was doomed by an inability to win any of their three games at home and by a virtual no-show with their season on the line.
How bad was it? Consider they had as many shots on their own goalie (one, an accidental Ben Chiarot deflection) as they did on St. Louis rookie Jordan Binnington (one, a harmless Morrissey wrister) in the second period, and just six overall through 40 minutes.
"They played a heck of a game. We had six shots through two periods. Probably not going to get it done. You've got to give them credit. They got that one early and just kept rolling," said Wheeler.
Coming into the game, the Jets said all the right things about not letting the way Game 5 ended impact their play. They were 20 minutes from series lead on Thursday night, only to watch a 2-0 lead turn into a 3-2 loss at Bell MTS Place. And yet, their play suggests that heartbreaking outcome did spill over.
"That game certainly hurts. You feel like you've got to win two games to win one sometimes," said Wheeler.
Adam Lowry was pretty blunt when asked what he thought the difference in the series between a pair of 99-point regular-season teams was.
"It was a close series. I think being able to hold the lead in the third period would have been important. So probably that," he said.
The Jets didn't have to worry about a lead in this one, falling behind quickly. It wasn't without some controversy. Winnipeg challenged for goaltender interference, arguing Schwartz made contact with Connor Hellebuyck. But video review confirmed a good goal, and the Jets immediately lost their timeout and any further challenges.
"You can’t get any luckier than that. What I saw was a puck that hit the side of the net or the post, one of the two, and somehow it jumped straight up and (hit) crossbar, off my back. If that’s not the fortunate bounce that you consider luck, then I don’t know what is," said Hellebuyck.
The lost challenge would be big when Schwartz struck again, as it appeared Pat Maroon was right in Hellebuyck's crease and may have impeded his ability to make a save. But with officials not flagging it, the Jets had no ability to protest.
"That’s the definition of goaltender interference and his argument was the guy was in the white. But I was clearly in the blue, my feet were on the post or just off the post so there was way I could be in the white. And he had a hold of my glove and he was holding it and I couldn’t move for a solid five, 10 seconds and I don’t know, I just think that’s goalie interference," said Hellebuyck.
Dustin Byfuglien also played a big factor in the first two tallies. On the first one, he casually gave the puck away with his partner, Chiarot, caught up ice pinching, then backed into Hellebuyck along with Schwartz.
On the second goal, it was Byfuglien in the penalty box for a foolish roughing infraction which came at the end of a marathon shift. Byfuglien put Alex Steen in a headlock, then took a swipe at someone on the St. Louis bench.
Not a good look for one of the key pieces of the Winnipeg foundation, who also happens to be part of the leadership group as an assistant captain.
Schwartz added his third of the night for good measure early in the third, with the Jets again caught pinching. That provided some valuable insurance, which came in handy when Byfuglien scored with 7:43 left in the game, burying a rebound off a Hayes shot.
Wheeler took a four-minute high-sticking penalty with just over two minutes to play and Hellebuyck out of the net for an extra attacker. Bryan Little scored shorthanded with 36 seconds left (it was actually five-on-five as Hellebuyck was again pulled), but the comeback would ultimately fall short.
"In situations like that you look for the resolve in your group. You look for how guys fight. And we played until the last whistle. That's the way I see it," said Wheeler.
Fans at the Enterprise Center soaked it all in, even chanting "You look nervous" towards Hellebuyck in the waning minutes of the game. Of course, that was a cheeky ode to the Bell MTS Place chant directed at Binnington during Game 5.
Binnington may have been bored more than anything on this night, facing just 20 total shots, with most of those in the final period when the game was already out of reach. Hellebuyck was much busier, with 36 shots.
After dropping the first two games on home ice, both by a single goal, the Jets seemed to find new life with a pair of impressive victories in St. Louis to even the series. And they appeared to carry that over to Game 5, with a strong start that imploded down the stretch.
"You’ve got to be careful with excuses, we got beat. I don’t think we had that sustainable gas for the whole series. I didn’t feel we had it coming into it, where we played as hard as they could for five games. And there were a lot of good stretches of hockey in here," said coach Paul Maurice.
"They played as hard as they could (Saturday) and they didn’t quit You could see it in their faces going into that third, there’s not a lot of reserve there. They kept pushing, so I’m proud of that and I’m proud of the way they handled that."
Now they have a much-longer off-season than planned. A team that was in first place in the Central Division for much of the year, only to lose it in the final days of the regular-season, ended up just winning four of their final 13 games (4-8-1).
Nikolaj Ehlers was a game-time decision to play after blocking a shot in the final minute of Game 5. He suited up, but didn't appear to have the usual extra gear as he moved around. Of course, the same could be said for most of his teammates, who appeared stuck in neutral for most of the night.
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.
Updated on Saturday, April 20, 2019 at 9:31 PM CDT: Updates
10:30 PM: Writethrough