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HELSINKI — The Winnipeg Jets landed on foreign soil Sunday afternoon, still smarting from a stupefying loss in Toronto but eager to start a memorable week in Finland.
Winnipeg’s first NHL Global Series includes regular season games Thursday and Friday against the Florida Panthers (2-4-3), a distant NHL relative from the Eastern Conference.
The Jets (7-4-1) enjoy an off-day Monday and practise Tuesday and Wednesday at Hartwall Arena.
It’s a homecoming for Jets winger Patrik Laine, who left an indelible mark on the elite Finnish SM-Liiga and was a national hero during several international championships before being drafted by the Jets in 2016.
Exhausted from the long flight after a 3-2 defeat to the late-rallying Maple Leafs, the 20-year-old from Tampere, about 180 kilometres north of Helsinki, said he’s delighted the long-awaited, once-in-a-lifetime road trip had finally arrived.
“Tired but excited. It’s fun to be here and always good to be able to speak some Finnish on the road. It’s awesome to be here,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a busy week for me. There’s a lot of things I need to do, a lot of people I want to see. So, it will be a busy week but it’s better to have a tight schedule than just nothing and just lying in bed just like usual on the road.”
The NHL announced the two-game series in late January, and more than 13,000 tickets were gobbled up in minutes when they went on sale in early March.
“I’ve been waiting for this since I heard we were coming to play here last year. It’s been the games that I’ve been waiting for since the season started. So, it’s awesome to finally be here and be able to be back home,” offered Laine.
The Panthers visited Finland in 2009 and played an exhibition contest against Tappara of the Finnish league in Laine’s home town.
“It’s obviously a dream come true to be able to play in the NHL and now to come to Finland and play. It was awesome as a kid to go watch Florida play against my home town team, and now to be one of those guys who comes here and inspires the kids, it’s an honour and I’ll try to do my job as well as I can,” he said.
For Laine, that means going up against a good friend and fellow countryman, Florida centre and team captain Aleksander Barkov, who is three years his senior.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who has more guys cheering for them. I think it will be a lot of fun,” said Laine. “We have passionate fans in Finland, so I think they’ll be pretty loud and cheering for both of us for sure, but hopefully more for the Jets.”
On Saturday, a 2-0 lead heading into the third period turned into a stunning regulation defeat Saturday night with a pair of Toronto goals just 26 seconds apart coming with the clock ticking down.
After Nazem Kadri got the Leafs on the board in the final frame, Jake Gardiner tied it with 3:11 to play and then Kasperi Kapanen scored the winner with just 2:45 left.
Kyle Connor opened the scoring for Winnipeg in the first period with his sixth goal of the season and Mark Scheifele pushed the lead to 2-0 in the second frame with his sixth. The Jets put down an impeccable performance through about 42 minutes before things unravelled.
“We were there. That was probably our best game of the year,” said captain Blake Wheeler. “(The) puck didn’t bounce our way at the end. Outside of that, we liked a lot of what we did. We’re going to look to build off of that one.”
Poor puck management with the Leafs pressing down the stretch was a major contributing factor in the loss.
“Just the thing that doesn’t happen to us very often,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “We touch first pucks in our end of the ice and we contain them or move them pretty quick — and we didn’t. And they’re in the back of the net.
“If you turn that puck over, you’re going to have a problem recovering from it. We don’t do that very often. It’s not a trend or a theme for me.”
The previous night, the Jets were the comeback kids on a lesser scale as Connor and Dustin Byfuglien erased a 1-0 first-period deficit in Detroit for an eventual 2-1 triumph. The road trip now continues across the pond.
Maurice maintained there are benefits to the rare opportunity to play a bunch of time zones to the east.
“(Players) get to be in one place (with) team-bonding ideas and have fun. They we’ll get a couple of decent days of practice,” he said. “It’s unusual because we practise at different times. There’s also a real value in learning how to handle changes in your itinerary. I think we went two playoff series without playing at the same time. So, there’s a value to having a little bit of adjustment, time change, all those things, and then enjoy an interesting experience in the NHL.”
And no one moreso than Laine, Maurice noted, with a smile
“Sure, you get to show off a little bit. You’re playing in the NHL, you’re 20 years old and you get to bring your whole team over to your playground to show off in front of the other kids. It should be fun. I hope he has a great time here. What a wonderful experience for his whole family,” he said.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).