WINNIPEG — Suddenly, we may have watched the final period of hockey at Bell MTS Place. Three days from now, this wild ride that the Winnipeg Jets have taken their province, this hockey country, on could end in a pool of beer on the Nashville strip.
What the heck happened here? How on earth did these tables turn so fast?
“I don’t know about that, but I know this,” began Jets had coach Paul Maurice, a sage voice at troubling times like these. “Pittsburgh lost tonight. They’ve learned all those lessons you’re supposed to learn — killer instinct — all those words that come out today that we didn’t get. And they lost. It’s playoff hockey.”
And what fabulous playoff hockey it has been, a series that has given us a new level of play by a different set of players every time out. Last game, Kyle Connor flew the coop on a three-point night. Then Pekka Rinne, with an .898 playoff saves percentage that belied his status as a Vezina candidate, comes out the size of a castle door in Game 6, shutting out the Jets 4-0.
“I’m not happy to watch it, obviously,” smiled Patrik Laine, the young Finn who literally grew up watching Rinne and cheering his every for the Suomi. “He’s been really good — I’m not taking that away from him. He’s a good goalie and I think everybody knows that but we just have to find a way to put a couple of pucks behind him.”
Here’s what you have to know about Rinne: He is the soul of this club. The original Predator, the captain without a ‘C’ on his chest, when Rinne makes a pair of saves the quality of the back to back stops he made on Paul Stastny in the first period, it’s like a Bat Signal to the rest of this club
Tonight, anything is possible.
It had Viktor Arvidsson, from the very first moment his blades touched the ice, moving like a Lear jet at low altitude. Filip Forsberg, one of the fine goal scorers in today’s game, scoring two of his finest, while the slick Ryan Johansen was dealing like a young Joe Thornton.
Together, their line was plus-4 in a 4-0 win. The Jets, meanwhile, have scored one, final-minute, meaningless goal combined in the last six periods played in this arena.
“For all of the good things that (Nashville) did tonight,” allowed Maurice, “it probably should go seven games. It’s been back and forth, up and down. It’s probably right that it’s goin’ seven.”
It isn’t often a series with this much pedigree lives up to the billing. This matchup, however, has been a gift from the Hockey Gods.
No team has won two games on the road, with Nashville falling behind in a Game 1 they dominated, and chasing this series ever since. Both clubs are 1-2 at home — four road wins in six games. The even strength shot attempts are 338 apiece, the even strength shots 177 apiece, and the even strength goal tally 12-11 for the Preds (source: Natural Stat Trick).
We’ve seen these Jets score their goals in bunches all series long, once erasing a 3-0 lead in 5:21 en route to a 7-4 Game 3 win. Then, in the all-important Game 6, Nashville kills off three straight penalties in the opening period, coming out of the frame with a stunning 1-0 lead.
This one is a bookie’s dream. Just when you think you’ve got it pegged, the opposite occurs.
“Three-three, two best teams in the league. We’re not too worried about going to their building,” said lanky Jets defenceman Tyler Myers. “We’ve taken two out of three (in Nashville) so far. And it’s a fun atmosphere just like it is here. I’d feel a lot better beating them in their own rink, too.”
This was a championship caliber team facing elimination far earlier than they’d planned, with nothing left but to pour it all out on the ice on a steamy night in The ‘Peg. Nashville did just that, and for one night at least, it was more than the Jets could handle.
But it could be worse, couldn’t it, Winnipeg?
This is a town where hockey dreams have come to die since 1979. Who is a Jets fan to pooh-pooh a one-game shot at a Conference title?
If you’d have told captain Blake Wheeler back in September that he would skate out on to the ice at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night with an opportunity like this, you know what he’d have done?
“I would have given you a big kiss,” Wheeler said. “Not a lick. Let’s be clear.”
We asked Maurice how he’ll coach this team over the next two days? His answer shows a steady hand, a guy who will pass on what needs to be passed on, minus the Knute Rockne speeches and soapbox oratories.
“This isn’t, ‘Hey, let’s really try hard now. It’s Game 7,’” he said. “I get it. It’s frustrating. It’s painful. You were right there. It’s an elimination game. But there have been an awful lot of seven game series that have happened in the history of the National Hockey League, and somebody was up 3-2 in every single one of them.
“They were good on the road, we were good in our last game,” he concluded. “It’s gonna be a hell of a game.”
Couldn’t say it better myself.