It seemed like it was going to be so easy.
After mowing through Minnesota and knocking off Nashville in dramatic fashion, the Winnipeg Jets were looking every bit like a team that had a date with destiny. The only thing left blocking their path to the Stanley Cup final was the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who surely couldn’t continue their incredible Cinderella story forever, right?
That certainly seemed to be the case in the opening minutes of Game 1 in the Western Conference final. One quick goal, then another and another, and the Jets were flying high, up 3-0 just 7:35 into the game. The rout, it appeared, was on for the best regular-season team left standing, with their 52-20-10 record that was second only to the vanquished Predators in the NHL.
“We won two series, we beat the No. 1 team in the league, so the sky’s the limit at this point,” said veteran Jets forward Mathieu Perreault.
But then this six-week thrill ride, one which captivated not only a city but also a hockey-loving nation, came to a screeching halt. And the greatest season in franchise history was over, just like that, coming up just short of playing for the ultimate prize in hockey.
“I thought this was our year,” said an emotional goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who consoled several exhausted teammates on the ice after Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Bell MTS Place
So what the heck happened?
It’s clear now, in retrospect, that the Jets were riding an emotional tidal wave into that opening game just 10 days ago. They had just dispatched the talented Predators less than 48 hours earlier, in enemy territory no less, and managed to keep the good times rolling. At least for one more game.
Vegas, meanwhile, was coming off another period of prolonged rest after winning their second-round series in relative quick and painless fashion.
But then a switch seemingly flipped as soon as the puck dropped for Game 2, which would be the start of four straight losses for the Jets. They trailed for the vast majority of those 240 minutes of hockey, never once holding a lead and almost always chasing the game.
“First of all, in the end, when you add it all up, they were good. They were real good. Did not give any easy offence. We had to grind and work and work for the chances that we did get. There’s a cost to that. And it stacked up, and coming off of what we did to get here,” said head coach Paul Maurice.
That’s as close as he came to blaming what happened on fatigue — physical, mental or otherwise — carrying over from the Nashville series. And for the record, multiple players rejected any suggestion they simply ran out of gas in the end.
“We lost some sharpness. When you look at the second half of our last two games, especially, we were driving as hard as we could. So there was fuel in the tank. There was a hard and heavy push and it was right. The compete was as good in this series, certainly in pieces of the game, as it’s been all year,” said Maurice.
“But a lot of the plays did not come off our stick the way they had prior to it, and it wasn’t a matter of tightness. Our hands felt it. Your brain goes a little slower, it gets off your stick a little quicker, your reads are a little slower. But the will was still there.”
The Jets hadn’t lost more than two consecutive games in regulation all season, showing a remarkable ability to rebound after a defeat or two. But try as they might, they simply couldn’t get to that next level as this series wore on.
“There were some things that at times during the year, and maybe the playoffs are a different animal, but were easier for us. Clean things, on the tape, pucks off the tape a little quicker, that became difficult for us. The right thing to do is to make sure you give the other team credit. They did a good job with that.”
Unlike Games 3 and 4, when Winnipeg mounted a huge push in the third period while trailing, it was a different story in Game 5. Vegas actually outshot them 9-8 with their season hanging by a thread.
“It’s hard to believe it’s over, really. We tried so hard, too. We left it all out there. It’s so disappointing when you put so much effort into it and the result’s just not there. It’s hard to swallow,” said Perreault. “A couple of games got away from us and then just hard battling in those games, we always battled back to tie it up and then always gave them one back not too long after. That was the story of the series.”
Another big reason for their disappointing demise was the sensational play of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Winnipeg only got 10 shots by him in five games — and only seven in the last 14.5 periods of hockey if you take away their scorching start in Game 1.
The three-time Cup winner stopped 151 of the 161 shots he faced in this series, for a .938 save percentage.
“They had the best goalie in the league right now. He stood on his head. He made a lot of big saves. Their D played solid, played solid in their D zone. And obviously it was the difference,” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele.
“Their goaltender was extraordinary. There were numerous times the puck was in spots where it looked like it was in the net or going in the net. And he’s playing lights out right now,” added captain Blake Wheeler.
A lack of secondary scoring also came back to haunt the Jets. Only four forwards managed to light the lamp in the series — Scheifele had three, Patrik Laine two and Kyle Connor and Joel Armia had singles.
“Just couldn’t score. I think we had a lot of chances. Just couldn’t capitalize. I think that was one of the reasons why we’re out,” said Laine. “Just for me, I couldn’t shoot. I don’t know what was wrong with that, I had a lot of good chances, just couldn’t hit the puck or the net.”
The other three goals came from defencemen in Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Josh Morrissey.
“You’re not scoring, you’re not winning. It’s definitely frustrating. It’s hard to believe it’s all over. We really thought we were going to do it this year. We had that great feeling, we felt like we had the team to do it. It just wasn’t meant to be,” said Perreault.
It’s also clear Hellebuyck just wasn’t the same dominant goalie he’d been during the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs. It wasn’t so much that he let in bad goals, but the critical mistakes that began piling up.
A misplayed pass attempt in Game 3 ended up in his net 12 seconds after the Jets had tied the game. A bobbled shot resulted in a goal 41 seconds after the Jets had tied it in Game 4. And some miscommunication with Morrissey may have played a role in the crucial opening goal of Game 5.
“You could see how hard everyone was working. How much everyone wanted it. That’s why this one’s tough,” said Hellebuyck, who had just a .906 save percentage for the series.
Was it fatigue on his part? He appeared in 84 games this season, regular-season and playoffs combined, with 81 of those being starts. That’s an incredible workload for any goalie, let alone a young one like Hellebuyck.
Finally, might good old lady luck have played a factor? The Jets certainly think so. And some of the overriding analytics, in addition to the simple eye test, would suggest Winnipeg was the much better team through much of the series without getting properly rewarded. Vegas was clearly opportunistic, making the most of their chances.
“That’s conference hockey. I think playoffs in general, games are so tough, whether it’s a bounce here or a goal here, a momentum goal to change it. But a bunch of one-goal games that could have gone either way. So there might have been some that we thought we should have, we didn’t and sometimes you’ve just got to take it like it is,” said centre Paul Stastny.
“Luck was on their side, definitely. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even their goals (Sunday) were two tips. I don’t know. It’s tough to swallow,” said Hellebuyck.
Winnipeg was given eight power play chances over the last two games, scoring just once. A timely goal or two could have turned the tide.
“Every game was tight. Every game was a matter of inches, almost. They capitalized when they needed the chance and it just sucks,” said Scheifele.
Wheeler said you have to give credit to the Golden Knights, who showed no signs of wilting under the big spotlight. They’re playing with house money, a team of castoffs and self-described “misfits” given up on by other teams, and seem to be thriving.
“Throughout this whole thing until that buzzer blew, I never thought we were out of it, never thought we wouldn’t find a way back into it. It just seemed like every time we grabbed some momentum, they took it. So we can use whatever we want to do, but you have to give them a ton of credit for doing that. It’s the sign of a good team,” said Wheeler.
“It was their time. They’re just playing really well. And you have to give them all the credit. Typically in a seven-game series, the better team wins. Coming into it, I thought we had the best team. I felt that way and obviously I’m a little bit biased, standing in this room feeling that we had a great opportunity. And that team just … it was their time.”
And so the Jets will be left wondering what could have been, with a much shorter off-season than usual to think about it. They appear to be well-equipped for future success, but nothing in life is guaranteed.
“That’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports,” said Perreault.
Read more by Mike McIntyre.