In a game that needed a hockey hero or two to emerge, it was Paul Stastny’s savvy shooting and Connor Hellebuyck's stellar saves that made the difference.
And a thrilling 1-0 overtime victory on Friday night at Rogers Place has given the underdog Winnipeg Jets a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven first round playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers.
This one was all about the masked men. Hellebuyck and his counterpart, 39-year-old Mike Smith, put on a goaltending clinic through regulation, combining for 69 saves. Not surprisingly, the only puck to find the back of the net came on a shot through traffic, with Stastny patiently waiting for Oilers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov to cross in front of Smith before wiring a wrist shot at 4:06 of the extra period.
"I figured I'd try to use the D as a screen and just put the puck on net. I feel like in overtime, whether you're trying to score or whether you're trying to generate offence, I think sometimes that's just the easiest way to do it. The puck had eyes, and fortunately it went in," said Stastny.
The Jets erupted in celebration, spilling off the bench to mob Hellebuyck, who finished with 38 saves, and Stastny, the veteran forward who just played his 1000th career regular-season game last week and waived his no-trade clause not once, but twice, to join Winnipeg for moments just like this.
"You know, it was one of those moments that just flashed by. It's almost unexpected but that's playoff hockey right there. We played such a good team game tonight. It was time. It was our time. I'm really excited for the guys," said Hellebuyck.
Not to be overshadowed was the incredible defensive effort by the Jets, who paid the price by sacrificing bodies in the form of bruising hits and blocking shots. Dylan DeMelo had the biggest of the night, a painful blast to his hand that likely prevented a sure Edmonton goal. The Jets finished with a 22 blocks and 52 hits in the game.
"That just shows why we are where we are. We're grinding and fighting for every second. We're not giving up on a play," Hellebuyck said of the effort in front of him.
For a second straight game, the Jets kept the league's two best point-producers at bay. Connor McDavid, who won the scoring race with 105 points in 56 games, and Leon Draisaitl, who finished second with 84, were blanked, just as they were in Wednesday’s 4-1 defeat in Game 1. It’s quite the development considering how the pair feasted on the Jets during the regular-season. McDavid had 22 points against Winnipeg, while Draisaitl had a dozen as the Oilers won seven of nine games, including six straight heading into the playoffs.
"It's been a group effort. We have to play as a group of five. Our defencemen are doing a really good job. We're trying to come back and give them help and let our goalie see the puck," said captain Blake Wheeler, whose line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor have gotten a healthy dose of the dynamic duo.
"Those two guys are one and two in the world right now, best two players. They're creating chances, they're making plays. We just have to try not to give them chances, that's the big thing."
There were only eight games during the regular-season where McDavid and Draisaitl were held without a point on the same night, and it only happened in two consecutive games on one occasion. Both had plenty of chances in this one, with McDavid firing five shots and Draisaitl four, but Hellebuyck stood tall all night long.
"He's the reason we have a chance. He's the reason we are a playoff team and the reason we have confidence every time we go out there. You can't say enough about having a guy you believe is going to stop every shot," said Wheeler.
"It’s such a great confidence boost for the group where you don’t feel like you have to play perfect hockey. I think that’s probably what he would say, that it’s his job to clean up our mistake. It just gives guys so much confidence to go out there and play with a little bit more freedom, a little bit more confidence knowing that if I make the wrong play at the wrong time, I got a guy back there that can bail me out."
Desperate for some offence, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett put all his eggs in the proverbial basket, pairing McDavid and Draisaitl together off the start, along with winger Jesse Puljujarvi who has Edmonton's only goal in this series. The pair were on separate lines for most of Wednesday's opener.
Winnipeg had its skating legs going early. Adam Lowry had a terrific rush chance in the opening minutes, drawing a slash from Ethan Bear that gave the Jets their first power play of the series. And they nearly connected, with Connor getting two shots from in tight. Smith turned away both.
In Game 1, the Jets mustered just six first period shots, and 22 in the entire game. They had 11 through the first seven minutes of this one, and 17 in the opening frame.
Edmonton had some good looks as well, including a sustained offensive zone shift in which Jets defencemen Logan Stanley and Tucker Poolman were trapped for more than two minutes, but they survived without incident, despite the Oilers having McDavid and Draisaitl out for most of it.
Winnipeg's second power play of the series, drawn by Mathieu Perreault, wasn't nearly as effective. They were unable to get organized in the Edmonton end, nearly coughed up a shorthanded goal and negated it near the end with a Perreault roughing penalty.
The Jets killed it off, with Stanley standing out for two superb stands he made at his blue line. The first involved a poke check off a streaking McDavid, the second involved a huge body check on Draisaitl to break up a play. Those would be significant for any defencemen, but especially for a rookie playing his second-ever playoff game.
Play evened out a bit more in the second period, although the Jets had another couple good looks. Andrew Copp came closest, as his rush chance ended with a shot that Smith just got enough of. Hellebuyck's best save came late in the period, when he first denied Draisaitl and then threw out his left pad for a terrific stop off Darnell Nurse.
The bad blood started boiling late after Mason Appleton was driven into Smith and a big brouhaha broke out. Smith nearly got involved in the fray, and even had some words for Appleton and his Winnipeg teammates as he skated towards his bench for the intermission.
Winnipeg flirted with danger early in the third period, as Stastny was called for slashing and Stanley for boarding, giving Edmonton a five-on-three for 21 seconds. The Jets survived thanks to some huge stops by Hellebuyck and a couple key blocks from Derek Forbort and Dylan DeMelo, whose arm may have saved a goal.
"Honestly, it was just pure chaos and desperation," said Demelo.
"(Alex) Chiasson has the puck off the rebound there. We both whack at it and I maybe got a piece of it. I just remember going down and I saw the puck go to McDavid. I was on my back so I have to throw something up, but I was on my back so I was thinking maybe I’ll two-pad stack it, but I don’t think I had the extension. So I just put my hands up and luckily it hit me.... You need that type of desperation and sacrifice. It was lucky that it hit me and the guys did a great job on the penalty kill for sure. It was a crazy play for sure."
That set the stage for an overtime that was short, but certainly sweet, for the Jets thanks to Stastny’s seeing-eye snipe.
"He’s been in enough playoff games to know that anything that goes to the net is the right decision. He’s played two really, really smart games. Some of his positioning in zone is just veteran. He knows how to change his body angle on so many plays, just to get to the right place... He sat on the wall for just a bit to open up a lane to the inside, almost bait a little bit and then gets a shot to the net. He’s been great for us," said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
The series now shifts back to Winnipeg. Game 3 goes Sunday at Bell MTS Place, with puck drop set for 6:30 p.m. Game 4 is Monday night at 8:45 p.m.
"We just did everything we could to get the win. It maybe wasn't perfect or pretty every play, but I think we have a team that can grind real well. And at this time of year it's going to take everybody. Every blocked shot matters, every hit matters," said DeMelo.
"I think we're just coming together as a team and everybody's pulling on the same rope, and it's been a lot of fun here. To come out with two wins here is huge. We still have a lot of work to do and they're not going to roll over. That game was a lot of fun. When everybody's contributing like that, our bench was real good, it was just a lot of fun."
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.