The show went on, at least for one more night.
And it was either the biggest game of the season for the Winnipeg Jets or one that ultimately might not mean a lick if the NHL season ends up getting wiped out, a worst-case scenario that suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
In the end, the Jets rallied for an impressive 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night at Rogers Place as both the sporting world and the real world were seemingly changing by the minute due to rapidly growing health concerns over the coronavirus.
What it means in the grand scheme of things remains to be seen. For now, Winnipeg has jumped back into a playoff spot with their season-high fourth straight victory, improving to 37-28-6 with 11 games remaining on the regular-season calendar. Edmonton falls to 37-25-9.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the very serious realities of what was happening outside the rink and the potential implications going forward.
Just before the puck was set to drop in downtown Edmonton, an NBA game in Oklahoma City was halted before it even began, with an ill Utah Jazz player testing positive for COVID-19. That led to the near-immediate, indefinite suspension of the league, an unprecedented move you’d think the NHL will strongly consider following.
"The NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. We expect to have a further update (Thursday)," the league said in a statement sent out during the second period.
The NHLPA released their own missive later in the evening.
"We are in continuous contact with the NHL regarding the coronavirus and the recent announcement by the NBA. These discussions will continue (Thursday) morning, and we will consult with players before commenting further," the union said.
Around the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump was announcing major restrictions on air travel from Europe for the next month in an attempt to try to contain the spread. And actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, announced they had contracted coronavirus and were under quarantine in Australia. The number of confirmed cases, and confirmed deaths, continued to rise around the globe. And the list of cancelled public events, sporting and otherwise, keeps growing.
All of which made the spectre of what was unfolding on the ice surface below feel rather trivial.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler said it was a shock to learn what was going on just as they were set to begin the second period. In his case, Edmonton forward Leon Draisaitl told him just prior to the faceoff, and word quickly spread on the bench and on the ice.
"It’s just an unusual kind of night overall. I think the way things have unfolded over the last few days, certainly going into the game tonight, our pre-game meals, our pre-game skates, pretty much everything leading up to the game was talking about this. Shoot, we barely even got to puck drop and the dominos were already falling. A crazy time right now," he said.
There’s no question the Jets are playing some of their best hockey of the season right now, with a lineup that is as deep and balanced as it has been at any point. They’re also taking advantage of a lighter schedule that is allowing for plenty of rest and recovery between games.
After a scoreless opening period, Oilers forward Tyler Ennis gave the home team the lead by taking advantage of a Connor Hellebuyck puck-handling gaffe behind his own net just nine seconds into the middle frame. For all of the Jets goaltender’s brilliance this season, his ability to play the frozen biscuit is not one of his strengths.
The Jets got a bit of an ugly one of their own at 9:25 of the period, as Wheeler’s pass attempt deflected off Edmonton defenceman Matt Benning and behind a surprised Mike Smith. It’s the 22nd of the season for the Jets forward.
Patrik Laine gave Winnipeg their first lead at 16:28 after he buried a shot from the slot. Linemate Cody Eakin won a race to a loose puck that Smith had considered playing, but couldn’t due to it being outside the trapezoid. Laine is at 28 goals on the season, while Eakin is up to five points in eight games since joining the Jets in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights last month. The Winnipegger has fit in quite nicely on the second line between Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Winnipeg’s advantage was short-lived as Connor McDavid, returning after a one-game absence due to illness, beat Hellebuyck on a dazzling deke at 18:23. The only thing sick about his play were his silky-smooth hands.
But the Jets got it back just 29 seconds into the third period, as Wheeler intercepted a puck at the Jets blue-line and sprung Kyle Connor on a breakaway. The winger didn’t miss, scoring the game-winner.
Connor added an empty-netter in the final minute to seal the victory. With 38 goals, he’s now tied for sixth in the NHL scoring race.
"I think going into the third we kind of regrouped a little bit and decided we’ve played some pretty good hockey this year, let’s play the way we know how and try to buckle down and get two points. Ultimately tomorrow’s out of our hands but we’re in a game right now so let’s try to win," said Wheeler.
Hellebuyck was once again heroic in the crease. He finished with 36 saves, many of the spectacular variety. He also got a bit of help from defenceman Neal Pionk, who stopped what looked to be a sure goal in the second period by batting a loose puck just as it was about to cross the goal-line.
You have to be good to be lucky, right?
Barring a significant announcement from the NHL in the coming hours or days, the Jets are set to continue this all-important road trip and playoff push through Western Canada with stops in Calgary on Saturday night and Vancouver Sunday night.
Wheeler said they’re preparing for everything.
"I don’t know. I think you just have to approach it like we have an off day tomorrow, and we’re going to practise on Friday and prepare to play a game on Saturday, until we’re told differently. There’s nothing else we can do," he said, without offering a specific take on what he’d like to see happen.
"I think, first and foremost, you want to do what’s in the best interest of everyone involved. Obviously yeah we’re playing good hockey right now and we’re pushing for a playoff spot, fighting for our lives. But it’s not as important as everything else. If we’re under the impression that we’re at no risk and we can continue playing, whether that’s with fans in the building or without fans in the building, we’ll keep playing. Like I said, if we’re at no risk and we can keep entertaining people and give them a couple hours break from everything else that’s going on, that would be awesome. But if it gets to the point where we’re putting ourselves in danger or other people, then it doesn’t make any sense."
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 Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at 10:55 PM CDT: Adds photos
11:29 PM: Full write through, adds quotes.