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Gather ’round, folks, as we fire up the old time machine for a quick trip back to the not-so-distant past. Warning: The ride may be a bit bumpy. And if you’re a Winnipeg Jets fan, this is probably going to hurt a little.
It’s April 18, 2019, and the city is absolutely electric as the clock hits 9 p.m. After all, the beloved local hockey team has quickly opened up a two-goal lead in a critical fifth game of its first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues.
Adam Lowry gets the party started just 12 seconds into the contest, bringing more than 15,000 fans inside Bell MTS Place to their feet and igniting thousands more taking in the raucous street party outside the rink. And after Kevin Hayes struck later in the first period, it seems like the Jets were well on their way to a third straight victory, having evened the series up earlier in the week with two huge road wins.
Oh, what a difference a couple hours would make.
History shows the Blues stormed back with three goals in the final frame, including the dagger by Jaden Schwartz with just 15 seconds left to play, to win 3-2. That sucked the life out of the crowd, the city and the team. Just 48 hours later in St. Louis, the Jets pulled a disappearing act as they fell behind 3-0 — Schwartz would strike for all three, including the opener just 23 seconds into the game — before scoring a couple late goals that couldn’t save the season.
Now one month later, the Jets have all gone their separate ways with plenty of questions and speculation swirling about what went wrong, along with plenty of calls for change.
And the Blues? Well, they’re on their way to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1970, having disposed of the Dallas Stars in a thrilling seven-game series, followed by the banged-up San Jose Sharks in six games.
Schwartz, the Jets’ killer, is now up to a dozen goals in the playoffs while goalie Jordan Binnington — the rookie Jets fans serenaded with booming chants of “You Look Nervous” during the playoff series — is the picture of poise in leading his team to the big dance.
I told you this was going to sting.
But here’s the thing: I suspect there are many fans out there who feel what St. Louis has accomplished this spring puts Winnipeg’s performance in an entirely new light. Some players and coaches, too. And they all may have a point.
No team wants to lose, of course. But does it cushion the blow when you come close to knocking off a squad that ends up going the distance? The Jets had the Blues on the ropes, only to self-destruct in that third period of Game 5.
However, does it suggest the Jets were actually closer to success than maybe it first appeared, and a “stay the course” approach going forward is much wiser than blowing things up?
Put another way, are the Jets a lot less broken than many people thought, now with the benefit of some hindsight? Would St. Louis getting quickly wiped out have changed the perception?
This is the second straight year Winnipeg was eliminated by a Cup finalist, with Vegas doing the deed last season. (The Jets won Game 1 of the Western Conference final and again seemed to have all the momentum, only to seemingly run out of gas and lose the next four).
The fact it happened much earlier this spring has no doubt contributed to the angst. But should it?
It’s always important to keep the big picture in mind, and not simply judge in a vacuum based on what went down during a two-week playoff series.
The Blues were pretty much the hottest team in the NHL when the playoffs began, having risen from the ashes after sitting dead-last in the league at Christmas. Sure, they finished with the same number of points as the Jets (99), but these were two teams going in opposite directions.
St. Louis was surging, having played desperate hockey for months, while Winnipeg had stumbled down the stretch, falling out of first place in the final days of the regular-season, which led to a matchup with the Blues.
Of course, winning the division and playing Dallas might not have changed much, given the wildcard Stars beat the Central champion Nashville Predators in six games, then took St. Louis to the full seven (including a 3-2 series lead like Winnipeg nearly had) before bowing out. And just ask the Western Conference champs in Calgary how that worked out for them, since they were eliminated in five games by wildcard Colorado.
All of which is to say that I’m not sure the regular season has ever meant less, and that it’s much more important how you’re playing when the playoffs begin then where you finished.
Now St. Louis has one more mountain left to climb in the big, bad Boston Bruins. Speed and skill still rule the day in the modern NHL, but there’s clearly a place for size and physicality, too. It should be a heck of a series, one not for the faint of heart.
That’s if it ever gets going. For reasons that make absolutely no sense, the league has decided to impose a massive break until the puck drops next Monday. Talk about zapping any momentum you have going, both from a fan perspective and also for the two teams that will have been idle for far too long. The Bruins will be playing for the first time in 11 days, the Blues for the first time in six days.
Whether it’s trying to avoid NBA conflicts or the upcoming Memorial Day long weekend in the U.S., the NHL has thrown a big wet blanket over its marquee event. And that’s a shame, really. Game 1 should have been this coming Saturday night at the latest.
The Blues appear to be a team of destiny this season, and raising the Stanley Cup next month would cap off one of the best comeback stories we’ve ever seen in sports.
For that reason, I’ll take St. Louis in seven gruelling games. And a Jets fan base left to wonder, once again, what could have been.
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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