ST. PAUL — It’s often been said that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. The Winnipeg Jets better hope that’s true.
Because for all the positives one might try to take out of a spirited battle with the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, the cold, hard reality is they essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a late-game meltdown that’s going to leave quite the mark.
A 5-3 lead with under five minutes to play turned into a stunning 6-5 overtime loss. The Jets finish a season-opening three-game road trip at 0-2-1, while Minnesota improves to 3-0-0.
"It’s a tough way to lose a hockey game," Kyle Connor said in a post-game interview at Xcel Energy Center. No kidding. Despite scoring twice earlier in the game, he had a direct hand — or, more accurately, a foot — in the dramatic turn-of-events.
After Marcus Foligno brought the home team within a goal with 4:58 left in the third period, the Jets seemingly iced it with an empty-net goal with just over a minute left in regulation. But an offside challenge would show Connor was a millimetre or two over the blue-line just prior to Mark Scheifele firing the puck into the yawning cage. The goal was wiped off the board, the home team had new life and they quickly — some might say predictably — made the most of it when Joel Eriksson Ek scored the equalizer with 59 seconds left to play.
"I had no idea. I thought I was good," said Connor. "Obviously, I looked at it too, I was off-side there. Just one of those things, a little attention to detailed by me. It stands out, easy as that."
Fighting against Minnesota’s wave of momentum buoyed by a sellout crowd of more than 18,000, the Jets were hanging on for dear life. Literally, in fact, as Josh Morrissey was penalized early in the three-on-three overtime session for holding star Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov.
Winnipeg had one great chance to win it, as Adam Lowry and Logan Stanley were the unlikely pairing on a two-on-one shorthanded rush. Minnesota goalie Cam Talbot stopped Stanley, the puck went the other way and Eriksson Ek finished it off on the ensuing three-on-one break. It was his third goal of the night, and his team’s third power play tally of the game.
"I liked it until we were offside on the empty net," said Jets coach Paul Maurice. "That’s a hard-fought, good battle game on the road. Liked big chunks of it. Didn’t like the last minute-and-a-half."
This was the first meeting between the Central Division rivals since Jan. 4, 2020, and it certainly made up for lost time. In addition to 11 total goals, the game had plenty of big hits, cheap shots — Kaprizov hitting Stanley with a flying elbow is likely going to get a look from the department of player safety — and a spirited, heavyweight scrap between Brenden Dillon and Foligno, in which the Minnesota forward started it off with a jumping "Superman" punch straight out of mixed martial arts.
There was also a roller-coaster of emotions in the form of multiple lead changes, with the Jets never trailing until the final puck crossed their goal line.
Connor opened the scoring just 3:48 into the game as Winnipeg’s new-look top line quickly cashed in. With captain Blake Wheeler testing positive earlier this week for COVID-19 and isolating from the team for at least the next 10 days, Andrew Copp took his spot beside Connor and Scheifele. Mats Zuccarello tied it less than a minute later, burying a juicy rebound given up by Connor Hellebuyck.
Connor struck again a few minutes later, blasting a puck that bounced off a wild player right on to his stick in the slot. It’s his team-leading third of the young campaign. Back came the Wild, as Eriksson Ek scored on the power play with just over a minute left in the opening frame. Hellebuyck seemed to lose track of where the puck was, and Eriksson Ek was able to find an opening to wrap it in.
The action took a bit of a breather in the second period. Morrissey put the Jets ahead once again when he scored on the power play, breaking a dreadful 0-for-10 slide to start the season for Winnipeg. However, the Jets coughed up the lead again. Zuccarello scored for a second time, as Hellebuyck’s pokecheck attempt deflected off the Minnesota forward straight into his own net.
Winnipeg grabbed the lead for a fourth time when Pierre-Luc Dubois scored on the suddenly red-hot power play at 4:19 of the third. Copp’s goal just over two minutes later seemed to have the Jets in the driver’s seat, and plenty of fans began heading for the exits as the clock ticked down. They’ll no doubt regret that decision based on how the rest of the night transpired.
"That’s the way hockey goes," said Scheifele. "It’s going to test you, it’s going to push you but it’s about the guys that fight back. We’ll regroup and be better next game."
The Jets have now surrendered seven power play goals in three games. And Hellebuyck has now given up 14 goals in his three starts. All of that is certainly problematic.
"Bad bounces, couple I’m sure he wants back. He’s hard on himself, I know," said Connor. "He’s a competitor, he wants to strive to be the best, just like a lot of guys in that room."
On the positive side, the offence certainly got in gear, and a 2-for-6 night on the power play should build some confidence going forward.
Still, this is a case of a glass being half-empty, and not half-full, given how it played out.
"It’s been an eventful first three games and we have lots of room to get better," said Maurice. "We’ve got some good things going. I thought this was the first game this year that’s had NHL intensity in it. It was the little things. The game’s hard, lots of physicality, lots of good chances at both ends. Both teams were playing hard for their chances. You want to win that game so you can take all the good from it and build from it. We’ll try to take some of it, but we’ll clean up some things, obviously."
The Jets chartered home after the game and will try to rebound on Thursday night in front of their own fans for the home opener against Anaheim at Canada Life Centre.
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.