April 26, 2018

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Unsung D-man Morrow plays hero for Jets

Winnipeg opens playoff series with 3-2 win against Minnesota Wild

<p>The Winnipeg Jets' celebrate after Joe Morrow scored his third period goal against the Minnesota Wild during NHL playoff action, Wednesday.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Winnipeg Jets' celebrate after Joe Morrow scored his third period goal against the Minnesota Wild during NHL playoff action, Wednesday.

It had been 8,015 days and counting since a Winnipeg Jets team last won a playoff game when they dropped the puck Wednesday night at a raucous Bell MTS Place.

After a tenuous 1-0 lead was quickly wiped away by two quick Minnesota Wild goals early in the third period, it appeared that dubious drought might continue. Maybe forever, some long-suffering fans were no doubt thinking.

But then a tying goal from a familiar face in Patrik Laine set the stage for one of those "only in the Stanley Cup playoffs" moments.

Enter Joe Morrow, the 25-year-old journeyman defenceman who was only in the lineup for Game 1 against Minnesota because of injuries to a pair of blue-liners. His shot through a crowd deflected off Charlie Coyle's stick and into the back of the Wild net with 7:13 left to play, putting Winnipeg up 3-2.

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It had been 8,015 days and counting since a Winnipeg Jets team last won a playoff game when they dropped the puck Wednesday night at a raucous Bell MTS Place.

After a tenuous 1-0 lead was quickly wiped away by two quick Minnesota Wild goals early in the third period, it appeared that dubious drought might continue. Maybe forever, some long-suffering fans were no doubt thinking.

<p>Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele celebrates his second period goal against the Wild.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele celebrates his second period goal against the Wild.

But then a tying goal from a familiar face in Patrik Laine set the stage for one of those "only in the Stanley Cup playoffs" moments.

Enter Joe Morrow, the 25-year-old journeyman defenceman who was only in the lineup for Game 1 against Minnesota because of injuries to a pair of blue-liners. His shot through a crowd deflected off Charlie Coyle's stick and into the back of the Wild net with 7:13 left to play, putting Winnipeg up 3-2.

The rink came unglued. The Jets managed to hang on. And history had been made, as the franchise previously known as the Atlanta Thrashers recorded its first playoff victory while a Winnipeg NHL team won a post-season game for the first time since April 26, 1996.

"That's the majority of the reason you play hockey as a kid is to come and play in the playoffs, play for the Stanley Cup and getting an opportunity to score a goal like that. So, to say it's a dream come true is a pretty big understatement," a beaming Morrow said following the win, which puts the Jets up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series.

Morrow was obtained just moments before the trade deadline in late February, coming from Montreal in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. It was a move that barely generated more than a collective shrug from fans, one designed to give the Jets some added blue-line depth.

They needed it, with Toby Enstrom and Dmitry Kulikov unable to answer the bell due to injuries. Morrow, paired with Dustin Byfuglien, will now forever be entrenched in local playoff lore.

"It's moments like these that kind of either make or break your hockey career. Take it hour to hour and just play your game, play fun and just enjoy the moment," said Morrow, a native of Edmonton who had five previous NHL playoff games under his belt, all with Boston last season. (He had one assist).

"If you believe in karma and trying to be a good person and eventually, you get rewarded for it? Yeah, absolutely. Like I’ve said before. I’ve had a major roller-coaster of an NHL career so far. To have a little, I don’t even know if you want to call it a Cinderella story of a night tonight, it makes you feel good. It makes all of the bad times and all of the times you’ve battled so hard to try and get an opportunity, it makes them go away. It washes them away and you get to enjoy it in front of a crowd like this and a city like this," he said.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said every goal this time of year is a thing of beauty, but there's no doubt the bench gets an extra jolt of excitement when someone like Morrow lights the lamp.

"We're not throwing any back in the playoffs. All goals are good, but always, a player that doesn't put a lot of points up or doesn't get the opportunity to be sometimes in offensive roles, he's not on the power play here, those goals are special," said Maurice.

So is this victory, which Maurice said was a long time coming for the city's hockey faithful. He was asked if this has deeper meaning beyond taking the all-important opening game of a series.

<p>Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine scores on Minnesota Wild's goaltender Devan Dubnyk during third period, Wednesday.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine scores on Minnesota Wild's goaltender Devan Dubnyk during third period, Wednesday.

"I think there is for the players that have been here since the team came back. There’s a lot of grind that went into it. Certainly ownership and management, probably more than anybody the fans," said Maurice. "There are two different versions of the Winnipeg Jets and it’s been a long time since they’ve been able to go home in a good mood after a playoff game."

This is just the second playoff appearance for the Jets in the seven years since they returned to Winnipeg. They were swept in four games in 2015 as a wild-card team, so finishing No. 2 overall in the NHL with a 52-20-10 record this season has heightened expectations, to say the least.

Winnipeg struck first with just over two minutes left in the second period with Minnesota a man short. Captain Blake Wheeler used Laine as a decoy and found a wide-open Mark Scheifele in the slot, who ripped home his first playoff goal.

Then came a wild and wooly third period.

Matt Cullen tied it for the visitors just 1:46 in, ripping a one-timer over Connor Hellebuyck's shoulder. Then Zach Parise took advantage of an ill-timed Dustin Byfuglien pinch, converting a beautiful two-on-one feed from Mikael Granlund just over two minutes later.

But if these young Jets were sagging emotionally, they have a funny way of showing it.

After a Minnesota turnover, the much bigger trade deadline acquisition, Paul Stastny, played give-and-go with Laine, who fired a wicked wrist shot past Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk just 53 seconds after the Wild took the lead.

<p>Patrik Laine, Paul Stastny, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele celebrate after Sheifele scored against the Minnesota Wild, Wednesday.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Patrik Laine, Paul Stastny, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele celebrate after Sheifele scored against the Minnesota Wild, Wednesday.

"That was not the start for the third period that we wanted. I think it’s not going to affect our game even though we are going to be down at some point, that’s going to happen in the playoffs. It’s just the way we can bounce back and get a tying goal and then right after that, get the game-winning goal. It tells us a lot about this team, how special this team is and how good we are," said Laine, who had a little extra to his goal celebration, which is often quite subdued.

"I mean, a goal is always a goal. But the atmosphere is just — the place exploded," he said. "I was saving my goals and celebrations for the playoffs. Now I can celly a little bit harder."

Winnipeg then came in waves, at one time firing 14 straight shots at the Minnesota net. The most important, of course, came off the stick of Morrow.

Minnesota pulled Dubnyk with 2:30 left in the third period and with an offensive zone faceoff. Winnipeg would try three times for the open net, just missing on every occasion, and iced the puck a total of six times.

But some huge faceoff wins by Adam Lowry in the dying minute helped preserve the victory.

In getting swept by the Ducks in 2015, the Jets blew third-period leads in the first three games of that series. It looked like history might repeat itself again Wednesday. But Maurice said the makeup of this squad is vastly different.

"Well, there’s an underlying confidence in our team that we can score goals. You go back to a series three years ago where one goal was very hard for us to scrape together. And we had a tendency to open up our game. That’s just a fact," he said. "Now, you’ve got an awful lot of goals coming off the bench and in some ways there’s lots of confidence we can score, so we’ve had that confidence all year and we don’t need to open the game up to do it."

Game 2 goes Friday night at Bell MTS Place (6:30 p.m.)

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Read more by Mike McIntyre.

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