EDMONTON — The Winnipeg Jets are no strangers to adversity, having faced plenty already in this most unusual NHL season. Now their long-awaited return-to-play may be a short one if they can’t find a way to overcome yet another series of obstacles suddenly standing in their way.
A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, putting them in a 1-0 deficit in their best-of-five qualifying series, actually wasn’t the worst thing to happen inside the hockey bubble at Rogers Place on Saturday night.
No, that would be the apparent serious injury suffered by top centre Mark Scheifele just a few minutes into the game, leaving the Jets with a gaping hole in their lineup and a noticeable sag in their play. Only to be followed by sniper Patrik Laine getting banged up midway through the third period and disappearing down the tunnel, not to be seen again.
Flames super-pest Matthew Tkachuk, who had drilled Scheifele with a bit of a late hit on the opening shift, quickly established himself as Public Enemy No. 1 after another early run-in with Scheifele. Replays showed Tkachuk’s skate appear to make contact with the back of Scheifele’s leg as they got twisted up, with Scheifele crumpling awkwardly to the ice and writhing in pain.
With no fans in the empty arena, media could hear everything being said on the ice, including a discussion about whether Scheifele needed a stretcher and/or ambulance. The Jets were irate, with coach Paul Maurice screaming “He kicked his (expletive) legs out” to officials on the ice, who called no penalty. Scheifele was eventually helped off, putting no weight on his left leg. He did not return.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler tried to exact some revenge a couple minutes later, dropping the gloves with Tkachuk. He ended up taking a hard right to the face as they tumbled to the ice.
The scrap seemed to briefly ignite Winnipeg, which opened the scoring 31 seconds later. Adam Lowry made a great backhanded, no-look pass from behind the Flames net to find linemate Andrew Copp, who fired a wrist shot past Calgary goaltender Cam Talbot.
Unfortunately for the Jets, that would end up being the lone highlight of the night. The Flames took over the game, peppering Connor Hellebuyck with eight straight shots following an early 7-1 deficit in that department to end the opening frame.
Calgary really poured it on and took over the game in the second period, outshooting the Jets 18-6 and outscoring them 3-0. First up was Johnny Gaudreau, who showed some slick hands in corralling a loose puck and beating Hellebuyck at 7:06 of the middle frame, with his team on a power play courtesy of a Nathan Beaulieu slashing infraction.
The Flames took their first lead at 12:51, taking advantage of an ugly Jets power play which coughed up the puck in the neutral zone, giving Tobias Rieder a shorthanded breakaway. He made no mistake in scoring what proved to be the game-winner.
With Cody Eakin in the box for interfering with Tkachuk later in the period, Mikael Backlund was left all alone in the slot and took a feed from Andrew Mangiapane, beating Hellebuyck for a 3-1 lead. The Jets looked absolutely lifeless.
Special teams are usually key in playoffs, and the Flames clearly won the battle Saturday. The Jets went a dreadful 0-for-7 with the man advantage, while Calgary went 2-for-4 plus a shorthanded goal.
It didn’t help that Laine, the power play specialist with the booming one-timer, wasn’t a part of the last two. He took a slash to the wrist from Calgary’s Mark Giordano and left the game midway through the third period. Giordano wasn’t penalized.
Mangiapane sealed the victory with an empty-netter late in the third.
The Jets now have a big mountain to climb, with 82% of teams that win the opening game of a best-of-five going on to a series victory. And of those 18 per cent who find a way to come back, likely very few of them do so missing one, or possibly two, of their biggest offensive weapons,.
Having their backs against the wall is nothing new for Winnipeg. From Dustin Byfuglien’s bombshell retirement on the eve of training camp, Bryan Little’s season-ending injury due to friendly fire from Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton breaking his foot prior to the Heritage Classic while warming up with the pigskin on the field at Mosaic Stadium, Mark Letestu’s life-threatening heart condition to a variety of other unexpected events, the Jets have had numerous challenges this year.
Speaking of Byfuglien, there’s no question the Jets could have used No. 33 in a game like this. Winnipeg was unable to match Calgary’s physicality on the night, routinely out-muscled by the bigger, stronger Flames who took plenty of runs at the Jets, along with lots of liberties.
They won’t have much time to lick their wounds and try to re-group, with Game 2 set for Monday afternoon and Game 3 early Tuesday evening. Games 4 and 5, if necessary, would be held Thursday and Saturday.
Maurice had to get the line blender out all night in Scheifele’s absence, with Wheeler moving back to centre the top line, Jack Roslovic moving up to the second line, and Mason Appleton bumped up to the third line. None of the combinations provided much in the way of offence.
The Jets ended up with just 17 shots on Ward, while Hellebuyck was the much busier goaltender facing 31 pucks.
Jansen Harkins would be the likely player to draw in for Scheifele, as he actually took the warm-up on Saturday with Nikolaj Ehlers dealing with some type of injury. Ultimately, Ehlers was able to play, and Harkins was scratched. If Laine was also a no-go, Gabriel Bourque is likely the next man up. The Jets also have rookie David Gustafsson, and depth players in Letestu and Logan Shaw on their post-season roster.
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.
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