The Winnipeg Jets had eight players hit double-digits in goals during the regular season and, collectively, they were five goals shy of cracking the NHL's top-10.
But on a night they needed just one to tie, and two to taste a much-needed victory, the Jets scoring touch dried up completely. The end result was a 1-0 win for the visiting Montreal Canadiens, who now return home for the next two games up 2-0 in the second-round, best-of-seven playoff series.
"I think relative to game one, it was quite a bit better," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. "I still think we can improve in a few areas in terms of how we move the puck, but in terms of not cheating the play, they had three breakaways and four two-on-ones in game one. We had a couple of bobbled pucks at the line that weren’t bobbling for us, but other than that, we were much better."
The Jets were without their leading scorer in Mark Scheifele, second-line centre Paul Stastny and defenceman Dylan DeMelo — three key players that have significant roles and log major minutes, but that still left a number of offensive threats, with leading scorer Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler all in the lineup — and all of who, ultimately, fell flat on this night.
But perhaps the biggest opportunity squandered went to Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was thrown into the spotlight because of circumstance, taking over for Scheifele on a top line with Wheeler and Connor. The trio each eclipsed 20 minutes of ice time and finished minus-2, with a combined six shots.
What made matters worse is despite the Jets getting dominated for long stretches at even-strength, it was their power play that ultimately let them down. The game's lone goal was the result of a miscalculation by Connor followed by a laser shot from Montreal's Tyler Toffoli.
The Jets were 0-for-2 on the man-advantage Friday and are now goalless in five trips on the power play through two games.
"It was the difference in the game so, yeah, that would be the turning point in the game," a visibly crusty Wheeler said. "I don’t think it takes a genius to realize that was the difference. Maybe a couple of minutes they controlled it after scoring a big goal, but other than that, the play was in their end pretty much the whole third period."
Predictably, the Jets preferred to look at the positives on a night that you didn't have to be a brain surgeon to realize there were few.
Winnipeg did make a push late in the game, but only when desperation ticked up while the clock ticked down. Winnipeg would have been looking for more than one goal had it not been for the stellar play of Connor Hellebuyck, who swallowed up three separate two-on-ones, all of which required him to be sharp, just in the final period.
Hellebuyck finished with 23 saves, while his counterpart, future Hall-of-Famer Carey Price, turned aside all 30 shots he faced to record his eighth career playoff shutout. Both were expected to be key performers in the series and both lived up to it after combining for seven goals (with one empty net) in a 5-3 win for the Canadiens on Wednesday.
After sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the first round, many had pegged Winnipeg as a true contender to come out of the North Division. But after a hostile ending to Game 1, there were plenty of question marks heading into Friday, including whether any of the bad blood from Scheifele's violent charge against Montreal forward Jake Evans might spill into the early goings of a pivotal rematch for the Jets.
Scheifele was given a four-game suspension for the hit, which left Evans concussed after scoring a late empty-net goal and out of the Canadiens lineup indefinitely. Montreal captain Shea Weber said before puck drop the play was behind them and that his team was focused on heading back home up 2-0.
Still, it was hard to ignore the tension from the previous two days, which included veiled threats from the Canadiens that if the NHL didn't handle Scheifele then they'd "make his life miserable." But through a scoreless opening 20 minutes that had a combined 15 shots, there were few hints of any built-up animosity.
It was as if neither side wanted the game to be anything like Wednesday's eight-goal affair, which was more run-and-gun than what was expected from two teams built from their goaltender out.
Momentum swings were apparent, with Winnipeg the quicker team out of the gate. The Jets took a 5-1 lead in shots through the first six minutes, and then Montreal found their jump, earning a 6-5 edge by the middle of the period. There were a combined four shots in the last half of the first.
The Jets had a good start to the second period, only for things to turn bad in a hurry. Canadiens forward Paul Bryon was assessed a high-sticking penalty on Adam Lowry 22 seconds in, sending the Jets onto the power play for the first time in the game.
With more than a minute already killed off, Weber whiffed on his clearing attempt, only for the puck to land on the stick of Toffoli for a 2-on-1 the other way. Connor would race back into the play but as he entered the Jets zone to make a check on Toffoli, his weak one-handed swipe at the puck did nothing to break up the rush. Toffoli casually pulled back the puck and watched as Connor skated by before firing a shot high past Hellebuyck.
"It's a 0-0 five-on-five game, so there's opportunity there to get better, so that's what's going to need to happen," Maurice said.
What followed was more uninspired play by the home side. The Jets struggled to break out of their own end, often being forced to shoot the puck off the glass or high into the air, negating any real flow through the neutral zone. When they were able to get the puck in the offensive end, the Canadiens used their speed and quick passes to exit with much more ease.
Maurice, seemingly eager to create a spark from his depleted forwards group, brought out the line blender, moving Kristian Vesalainen up to the second line with Andrew Copp and Ehlers and moved Mathieu Perreault to play with Lowry and Mason Appleton.
None of the changes would pay off, however, so it's back to the drawing board. The Jets do have experience to look back on; in 2019, Winnipeg fell behind 2-0 to the St. Louis Blues and went on to even the series with back-to-back road wins. They ultimately lost that series 4-2.
"We feel we’ve got to make the same kind of improvement in game three, and that’s the big one," Maurice said. "Obviously, a critical game for numbers, but also going into back to back. If we can make the same kind of improvement game over game, we’ve got a real good chance."
Game 3 is Sunday at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Puck drop is 5 p.m.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.