It’s a movie the Winnipeg Jets have seen before, one that ends with plenty of pain and heartache. And while the stakes were not nearly as high Monday night, Marc-Andre Fleury was up to his old tricks.
The veteran goaltender and reigning Vezina Trophy winner made 31 saves as his Chicago Blackhawks skated away with a 3-1 victory at Canada Life Centre. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Winnipeg, which had gone 2-0-1 since the All-Star break as they attempt to claw their way back into the playoff race. A loss to one of the few teams below them in the standings certainly won’t help the cause.
The Jets fall to 20-18-8. The Blackhawks improve to 18-24-7.
Fleury, 37, is no stranger around these parts, having led the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in the 2017-18 season. That included a five-game triumph over Winnipeg in the Western Conference Final, in which Fleury stopped 151 of 161 Jets shots.
“I thought he made a couple of big saves, especially in the third period, but I think that we as a team needed to do a better job of getting to him,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt, who was a teammate of Fleury’s during that magical first year.
“Our D, we shot pucks but we didn’t really have the guys in front and we’re just making easy saves for him. When he gets into a groove, he’s a guy that can really steal the flow of the game and I think we could have made it a lot tougher on him.”
Fleury isn’t putting up quite the same stellar numbers this season as the Blackhawks undergo a rebuild, but he certainly gives his club a fighting chance every time he’s in the crease. He also brings a swagger and veteran savvy, which was on full display when he stopped Jets centre Adam Lowry on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period and appeared to throw his stick in the process during an attempted poke-check.
“I think I had him beat,” Lowry said following the game. “His stick comes out, kind of gets in my way. I still had a good chance to score. It would have been nice to put that one in and put us up.”
The rule book suggests that should have been an automatic penalty shot, but it went undetected by the men in stripes. The old saying “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” certainly comes to mind for Fleury, who is a pending unrestricted free agent this summer and could be a hot commodity by the March 21 trade deadline for a contender looking to upgrade in the crease.
“It’s tough in real time for them to make that judgment call,” said Lowry.
“It’s a pretty big swing play if they’re not sure. He thought it was a poke check. I think it was more of a strategic drop if you will. It’s one of those ones, you can’t fault the ref there. Tough play, they’re coming from behind. You’d love to get the call, I think any one of us would love to get a penalty shot, but it’s too tough, too quick. Unless they’re certain, you wouldn’t want that call going against you.”
The only puck that beat Fleury was of the circus variety, as a Schmidt shot deflected off Blackhawks defenceman Connor Murphy, bounced high in the air and landed snug against the post, where Mark Scheifele swept it across the goal line about a millisecond before a diving Fleury could pounce on it.
The goal, at 6:17 of the third period, made it a 1-1 game. Scheifele has now scored in four straight games to give him 14 on the year. The Jets certainly sprung to life at that point, with several quality chances in the few shifts that followed. Most notably, Lowry and Kristian Reichel were both robbed from in close.
But a neutral zone turnover by Winnipeg proved costly, as Alex DeBrincat took advantage of a puck the Jets failed to get deep and made them pay. The Blackhawks leading scorer ripped a shot just under the crossbar at 9:42 for his team-leading 27th of the year.
That seemed to suck the life out of the Jets, along with the 7,511 in attendance in the final game to be played under public health orders which limit indoor crowds to 50 per cent. They changed to 100 per cent as of Tuesday.
Any attempts at a late rally, such as the one Winnipeg pulled off in Dallas last Friday night when they scored with Connor Hellebuyck out for an extra attacker, were thwarted by Fleury, who stopped a dump, made a terrific outlet pass to Patrick Kane who fed Brandon Hagel for the easy empty-net goal with just 56 seconds left in regulation.
“I didn’t think we had the same jump as we did in the last couple games,” said Schmidt. “We’re going to have stretches like this the rest of the year where we’re playing a lot of games. We’re going to need, I know we talked about it on the bench, we need to find the energy in the game, especially when it’s not as emotional, not as physical a game as the ones we’ve played. You’ve got to find that energy on the bench and in the room.”
Kane had opened the scoring for the visitors at 10:21 of the second period, notching his 12th of the year. Not unlike DeBrincat’s game-winner, this was a shot that Hellebuyck would likely want back, a slippery wrister that went right through his five-hole.
For all the talk about defensive play costing the Jets games, the numbers would suggest a lack of offence has been their Achillles’ heel this year. Winnipeg is now just 1-16-4 this season in games where they’ve been held to two or fewer goals. When they manage to score three or more, they are nearly unbeatable at 19-2-4.
The Jets have been red-hot on the power play of late, including scoring three times in a big win in Nashville last Saturday night, but only got one chance against Chicago and came up empty, thanks to a few big Fleury saves. The fact they couldn’t force the Blackhawks to commit more infractions speaks to their lack of life in this one.
Chicago also went 0-for-1 with the man advantage. Hellebuyck stopped 21 of 23 shots he faced.
The Jets were without top defenceman Neal Pionk, who couldn’t get back into Canada under federal regulations because he was only nine days removed from testing positive for COVID. This, despite playing both games last weekend south of the border. He is able to return to Winnipeg on Tuesday. Logan Stanley, who had missed nine straight games with a lower-body injury, returned to the lineup in his place. The Jets are still without injured forwards Nikolaj Ehlers, David Gustafsson and CJ. Suess, and injured blue-liners Nathan Beaulieu and Dylan Samberg.
They’ll take a day off from the rink on Tuesday and then ready for three more games on home ice this week, starting with a visit from Minnesota on Wednesday night. Seattle on Thursday night, and Edmonton on Saturday afternoon will follow.
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