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EDMONTON — Almost as quickly as it began, a Midsummer Night's Dream of a Stanley Cup is over for the Winnipeg Jets.
The effort was there. The execution, not even close. Facing a must-win against the Calgary Flames to force a deciding fifth game in their qualifying series, the severely undermanned Jets went out with a whimper in a 4-0 loss on Thursday night at Rogers Place.
And just like that, a most unusual 2019-20 NHL campaign that began with training camp in September, opened to poor reviews on Broadway in October, was paused due to COVID-19 in March just as the team was getting healthy and hitting its stride and then resumed with training camp last month has now come to a sudden end inside Edmonton's bizarre hockey bubble.
"I think that we had an incredibly resilient group this year and I think they did what they could here. This tournament, at the end, will be viewed in my mind exactly the way the entire year was. They fought till the end and did what they could," said coach Paul Maurice.
"It was extraordinary, to say the least, the circumstances that we were all in now, but par for the course, actually, for the Winnipeg Jets, for the year that we’ve had."
Until a pair of late empty-netters, Thursday's game was the kind of tight-checking, low-scoring affair where the Jets sure could have used the services of Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine in the lineup. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, the duo were both knocked out of Game 1 on the weekend with serious injuries, unable to return.
Maurice revealed post-game that Laine sprained his hand and was likely two or three weeks away from a return. He didn't say exactly what happened to Scheifele, only calling it "a crushing injury" to his leg. The team's top centre still has to see additional specialists, but is expected to eventually make a full recovery.
"We don’t think there’s any Achilles damage. So he’ll heal," said Maurice.
With their depth severely tested, the Jets were hoping for another miracle on ice along the lines of Monday's gutsy Game 2 win. But it wasn't meant to be.
For the first time in the series, Calgary opened the scoring as Dillon Dube got several whacks at a rebound, finally putting the puck past Connor Hellebuyck just 3:21 into the opening period. It's safe to say that wasn't the strong start the Jets were hoping for.
Winnipeg had a good chance to tie later in the frame, as a pair of slumping stars in Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor teamed up for a nifty play. Wheeler fed Connor for a one-timer, but the 38-goal scorer in the regular season was denied once again, just as he was all series.
Maurice tried to light a fire under the duo by moving Wheeler back to centre in Scheifele's absence, and adding the surging Nikolaj Ehlers to their line. And while they generated some chances, the end result was the same. Wheeler and Connor, the team's two highest-paid players who combined for 60 goals and 78 assists in the regular season, had a total of no goals and two assists combined in the four play-in games.
That’s simply not good enough, especially with what the Jets were already missing from their lineup.
Andrew Copp, who got the first crack at centre between Wheeler and Connor, was moved back to the wing on a familiar line with Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic. Cody Eakin was bumped down to the third line to play with Mathieu Perreault and Jansen Harkins, while the fourth line of Nick Shore between Logan Shaw and Gabriel Bourque remained intact.
"You lose two of your best players, it makes it tough to really accomplish what you want to as a team. The guys that played this series, there’s nothing left in the tank. Our team left it all out there," said Wheeler.
Hellebuyck vowed after an ugly Game 3 outing that he would be much better, forcing Calgary to "scratch and claw" for everything they got. He will likely want Calgary's second goal back, which came with just 0.7 seconds left in the first period. Hellebuyck, as he's prone to do on occasion, got caught wandering around his net and out of position, as Sam Bennett scored the buzzer-beater.
For a team already fragile due to the injuries piling up — Mason Appleton also missed a third straight game with a shoulder injury, Perreault was questionable but suited up at less than 100 per cent and Tucker Poolman played with a full face shield to protect the massive welt and cut on his cheek — going down by two goals into the first intermission had to feel like a knife to the back, especially in the fashion it happened.
You might have expected the Jets to come out in the middle frame looking like the desperate club they clearly were. But you would be wrong. Calgary kept coming in waves, firing 19 shots at Hellebuyck, who was up for the challenge and stopped them all. Winnipeg could only put eight pucks at Flames goaltender Cam Talbot.
The urgency was more apparent in the final 20 minutes. Ehlers, who was Winnipeg's best forward all series, got a breakaway early in the period but couldn't beat Talbot. Nor could Connor, who had a great chance on a two-on-one rush with Copp.
Talbot, the cagey veteran, finished with 31 saves for the shutout. Sean Monahan and Rasmus Andersson added empty-net goals in the final minutes to wrap up the series.
"Everyone, including us, wants to see a full, healthy team. Very unfortunate that it happened the way it did. But the guys that came in played great. So, we left our heart out there tonight. I have not complaints and I had a lot of fun going to war with these guys," said Hellebuyck.
One of the areas Winnipeg will regret not doing more with is the power play, which went 0-for-2 Thursday (both in the third period), and just 2-for-17 in the series. Of course, losing two major pieces in Scheifele and Laine didn't help in that department.
The Jets did clean up a penalty kill that was terrible in Game 3, surrendering three Calgary goals, by going 3-for-3 in Game 4.
Winnipeg was the designated home team for this one, and they pulled out all the stops by having the Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus sing a powerful, pre-recorded version of O Canada prior to puck drop, which started about 15 minutes late due to the late-afternoon contest between Vegas and St. Louis also starting, and ending, behind schedule.
As the Jets entered Rogers Place from their nearby Sutton Place Hotel to get ready for the game, they would have immediately been confronted by the ghosts of playoffs past — the Golden Knights ended their season in the spring of 2018, while the Blues did the favours in 2019, ultimately going on to win the Stanley Cup.
Now it's the Flames who turned out Winnipeg's lights. They advance to the traditional round of 16 that starts next week, playing one of Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis or Dallas.
"I've never had a season like this where you'd faced so much adversity and not quit, right? That's how you should value yourself -- how hard you compete in dire circumstances -- and we just had a year of it. So the feeling we have now is complete emptiness. The payoff is nothing. Other than we'll find it in a couple of weeks, a couple of months -- the growth of some of these young men that will learn to be stronger, heavier players in the playoffs and will develop," said Maurice.
The Jets will now exit the bubble on Friday, only 12 days after they first arrived. If there's a silver lining to all this, Winnipeg will have a one-in-eight chance (12.5 per cent) at the No. 1 overall draft pick as a result of the series defeat.
All eight qualifying round losers will go into a draw on Monday, with one being awarded the opportunity to draft the teenage phenom. After all the Jets have been through this season, and this week, perhaps the Hockey Gods might have a reward in store?
"It was a year that was a test from Day 1. I couldn’t be more proud of this team. Realistically there are plenty of opportunities for us to fold it in and chalk it up to a lost season and move on to next year," said Wheeler.
"I would say I’m proud and I’m very disappointed that we just couldn’t catch a break. I’m not saying that this series gets flipped on its head by having Mark and Patty — you’ve got to give Calgary a lot of credit — but I would have loved to have played a series with those two guys and seen how that would have shaken out. Put our best foot forward and from there you never know what’s gonna happen. "
Updated on Friday, August 7, 2020 at 6:15 AM CDT: Updates with final write-through, adds quotes
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