A sudden end to a special season, a solid future

It was stunning how quickly the Winnipeg Jets were disposed of by the Vegas Golden Knights.

I’m not shocked that Vegas won, though I predicted the Jets would win the series. It’s more that it took only five games.

I predicted the battle could be a long one for a couple of reasons, and under those conditions, it doesn’t take much to swing a series like this one way or the other.

My two big concerns were that Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury would continue at the lights-out pace he’d been playing at and that the team might maintain its “play fast” game at such a consistent level.

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It was stunning how quickly the Winnipeg Jets were disposed of by the Vegas Golden Knights.

I’m not shocked that Vegas won, though I predicted the Jets would win the series. It’s more that it took only five games.

JOHN WOODS/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILESWinnipeg Jets salute their fans after losing game five and the NHL Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights in Winnipeg on Sunday, May 20, 2018.</p>

JOHN WOODS/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILESWinnipeg Jets salute their fans after losing game five and the NHL Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights in Winnipeg on Sunday, May 20, 2018.

I predicted the battle could be a long one for a couple of reasons, and under those conditions, it doesn’t take much to swing a series like this one way or the other.

My two big concerns were that Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury would continue at the lights-out pace he’d been playing at and that the team might maintain its “play fast” game at such a consistent level.

It’s a style of play I felt gave Winnipeg the most trouble over the course of the season.

How could I get it so wrong, after respecting their strengths, along with recognizing their terrific top line?

The shot metrics numbers were significantly in the Jets’ favour, backing up what many people saw — a team that was carrying the play for a good chunk of the series.

Teams producing like that during the regular season have an excellent chance of having good things come their way, but the small sample of a playoff series can be a killer.

The No. 1 villain here is obviously Fleury — if he continues this run it’ll go down as one of the greatest-ever goaltending performances.

He was so good it took only a couple of uncharacteristic miscues from counterpart Connor Hellebuyck to help swing the series when it was in doubt.

That, and the Golden Knights’ ability to come off their defensive roles and move the puck up in lightning-quick fashion was impressive; hitting seams that gave them enough dangerous scoring chances and a few huge goals were just too much for Winnipeg.

While some Jets players and coach Paul Maurice denied they finally ran out of gas after eliminating the Nashville Predators, I’m not so sure. In the final period of the season, the Jets were outshot and Hellebuyck had to make a couple of big saves to keep it within a goal.

Passes weren’t as crisp and a little off target, and there was no big push as you’d expect with their year on the line.

Maurice admitted things weren’t quite right — the effort was there, but the hands, legs and brains weren’t in sync at the end. This wonderful Jets run was over.

My optimism for this season started when I felt GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had made the Jets a definite playoff team by adding goalie Steve Mason and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov in free agency last summer.

Those moves, combined with my continued belief in Hellebuyck, and their top-end talent and depth, led me to think they could finish anywhere from first place in the Central Division (if everything went right) down to being a comfortable playoff qualifier.

While Mason had little effect due to injury and Kulikov settled in as a solid third-pair defenceman, it was the maturing of a lot of individuals, and the team as a whole, that helped them jump to heights previously unseen.

We all have our favourite moments, but I really started to believe this club was special during a series of games during November and December. When this team got rolling in the offensive zone it looked unbeatable at times, and the underlying numbers backed it up.

There’s a long list of players who had terrific years, and we’ve talked about them many times.

But success starts at the top, with owner Mark Chipman now having proof that his vision seven years ago was dead on.

While I liked the original plan, over the years I felt Cheveldayoff was, at times, overvaluing some players and not looking to fill in obvious holes with better options, stalling the rebuild. I wasn’t part of the “fire Chevy” crew, but I wasn’t sold on his overall package until he filled those two spots last off-season.

Oddly enough, neither player that made me so confident in the Jets chances had a positive impact in the playoffs. It was the fact that he went hard at the two weak spots that made me a believer.

Regardless, the GM is getting his well-deserved accolades from around the hockey world.

He’s handed Maurice a team that should contend for the Stanley Cup for years to come. While I was critical of the coach during the past two years of losing I was also confident he could get this team to the playoffs in comfortable fashion.

While I have him in a group of 20-some similar NHL coaches, he now has an excellent chance to move up by guiding this club to a few successful playoff runs. It’s the supreme test for all involved.

It won’t be easy to get this far again, especially if Cheveldayoff has to eventually deal away some good contributors because of the salary cap.

But the best news is that their dream of winning the ultimate prize is now as legitimate as any team out there, and even more so than many organizations.

It’s all one can ask at this point.

Finally, when the Jets disappear, so do I. My sincere thanks and appreciation go to you, the readers and commenters.

The same to Free Press staff that help get my column out there, and sports editor Steve Lyons, who fixes everything, and gave me a chance to write some fun stories.

Chosen ninth overall by the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA’s Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.

Twitter: @NHL_Campbell

Read more by Scott Campbell.