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EDMONTON — There have been plenty of gutsy -- some might say improbable — Winnipeg Jets victories over the years, including a handful during a tumultuous past season where the hits just never seemed to stop coming to the club. But Monday's 3-2 triumph over the Calgary Flames, under huge pressure and seemingly insurmountable odds, might just be the most memorable of all.
"Those kind of backs against the wall games don't happen very often, so right up there near the top," Jets coach Paul Maurice said when asked where this one ranks in his mind.
"Our season was on the line so I guess that makes it special," added captain Blake Wheeler.
Consider how heavy the deck appeared to be stacked against the Jets following Game 1 of the best-of-five qualifying series, where a 4-1 defeat was overshadowed by several other critical losses. No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele went down with a scary looking lower-body injury in the opening minutes and didn't return. Sniper Patrik Laine suffered an upper-body midway injury midway the third period. And bottom-six winger Mason Appleton was also banged up. None were unavailable for Monday's critical matinee.
"That could've been a real devastating event," Maurice said of having 25 per cent of his forwards suddenly sidelined. "So it was a special time for our team to rally. I'm proud that we won the game in the manner that we did with the injuries that we had because it will give the people that are not familiar to our season a little glimpse of what we've been doing all year."
An unlikely hero swooped in to save the day. Nikolaj Ehlers, who is also battling an undisclosed injury and began the day with no goals in 22 career playoff games, picked a perfect time for his first. The speedy, skilled winger deflected a point shot from Neal Pionk with just under 10 minutes left in the third period to snap a tie and put the Jets ahead for good to even up the series.
"It felt great. I keep saying the same thing and I'm going to say it again but you want to score goals. You want to be a difference maker and when you're not able to score goals, you've got to help the team in other ways. I think I've tried to do that as good as I could and not think about it too much that it's been a while since I scored a goal. Of course it felt nice to finally get it and hopefully they keep coming now," said Ehlers.
Game 3 is set for today at 5:45 p.m. CT.
The game-winner was especially sweet for Ehlers, considering he might have been fitted for goat horns given earlier events. After Winnipeg built a 2-0 lead midway through the game, a reckless giveaway by Ehlers in his own end ended up in the back of the Jets net. Calgary tied the game a few minutes later, and Ehlers gave the Flames a glorious chance in the third period when he took exception to a hit from Matthew Tkachuk, tried to engage him to fight and was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Fortunately for Ehlers and his teammates, the Jets killed off all six minor penalties they took.
The injuries opened the door for Jansen Harkins, Gabriel Bourque and Logan Shaw to enter the series, and forced Maurice to dramatically shuffle his lines. Andrew Copp moved from third-line winger to first-line centre, between Wheeler and Kyle Connor. Mathieu Perreault moved up to the second line to skate with Cody Eakin and Ehlers. Harkins went on the third unit with Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic. And Nick Shore centred Bourque and Shaw.
The Jets had plenty of noticeable early jump, especially from an active blue-line that was pinching aggressively and turning over pucks. They were also much more physical after getting man-handled in the opening game.
Winnipeg took the lead 7:18 into the game when Roslovic made a nice outlet pass to Lowry, who fed a streaking Harkins with a backhander that sent the NHL rookie in all alone on Calgary goalie Cam Talbot. He fired a shot high to the glove side, just under the bar, for his first-ever postseason goal in his first-ever postseason game.
"You obviously want to make a difference. A lot of nerves and just excitement to get in there today. The last thing you want to see is guys on your team go down, some of our top guys. I just tried to step in and do my job out there and just tried to help the team any way I could. Obviously I got a great break in the first and I’m happy it went in," said Harkins.
The Jets added to their lead 5:43 into the second period when Lowry batted a puck out of the air to beat Talbot. The tally came less than a minute after the Jets squandered a glorious opportunity in the form of a five-on-three power play that lasted a full two minutes. Instead of killing their own momentum, Lowry rose to the occassion with a big goal, giving him three points now through the first two games.
"Pretty much throughout the year we've had key guys out of the lineup and at different points of time there's, there's been a handful of guys. I think that's a testament to our team's depth and guys coming in and, you know, kind of just taking advantage of their opportunity," said Lowry.
Nothing seems to come easy for Winnipeg, and they had to face some more adversity as the 2-0 lead quickly vanished. First came the costly turnover by Ehlers that ended with Elias Lindholm scoring at 11:29 of the middle frame. Then Sam Bennett tied it at 17:29 on a bit of a fluke play. Connor Hellebuyck was unable to handle a shot, coughing up a rebound to Sam Bennett who tried a wraparound behind the net, banking the puck in off the skate of Jets defenceman Nathan Beaulieu.
"What are we going to do with a two-goal lead? That’s too easy for us," joked Wheeler. "I don't know how many wins we got this year but a good majority of them were like that, where there was some adversity and things we had to overcome."
Winnipeg's ice-cold power play, missing both Scheifele and Laine, finally came through when it counted, with Ehlers notching the winner at 10:24 of the final frame. The Jets had been 0-for-3 with the man advantage on the day, and 0-for-10 on the series, prior to the goal.
"That’s not usually my spot on the power play. I was in there and I know what I need to do in there. I was lucky enough to get a stick on that puck. It felt great but you learn every single game, whether it’s pre-season or regular season or playoffs, you’ve got to get in where it hurts a little and I was able to do that," said Ehlers.
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 Monday, August 3, 2020 at 8:26 PM CDT: Updates final story
August 4, 2020 at 7:33 AM: Corrects typo
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