WINNIPEG – My, how the emotions can rise and fall in the span of a couple days.
There stood Patrik Laine with a long face while discussing a golden opportunity lost at the Heritage Classic. Coming off a hat trick, the electrifying Winnipeg Jets rookie found himself wide open in the slot early in Sunday’s game and somehow fired the puck right over the glass.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” said Laine. “I should have scored.”
There will always be a little tinge of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” associated with this afternoon for the Jets.
For a couple days the NHL’s smallest town became the centre of the hockey universe. You had Wayne Gretzky and Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk posing for selfies with seemingly half the people who live here. And then there was the massive civic celebration that occurred at Investors Group Field, where 30,000-plus packed the place on back-to-back days.
The situation seemed perfect for a young Jets team to make a statement of intent.
But they were just a little bit off.
A solid start against the Edmonton Oilers didn’t produce a goal, in large part because of that chance Laine would normally score on 9-out-of-10 times.
“I should bury those 10 out of 10,” he said.
Then a second period power play ended up leading to two against – with Mark Letestu scoring on a breakaway before Darnell Nurse jumped out of the penalty box and finished off a 2-on-1 with Connor McDavid.
Even though Winnipeg already has a couple big comebacks under its belt early this season, it wouldn’t find another on a temporary ice sheet where the puck bounced around a fair bit. Zack Kassian gave Edmonton a 3-0 lead before the second intermission and that was more than enough for goalie Cam Talbot.
“Sometimes we played OK, but OK is not enough in this league,” said Laine. “We have to be way better in the next game if we’d like to win.”
“It’s just the three turnovers, and they’re obvious, and the result was emphatic,” lamented Jets coach Paul Maurice.
As we come to learn more about these outdoor games it’s clear that the visiting team has an edge. Only five of 19 hosts have come away with a victory and it’s no surprise given all the extra hype that arrives when the circus is in town.
On Sunday, the start was delayed two hours by brilliant sunshine and Oilers coach Todd McLellan felt that gave his team an added edge.
Down the hallway, the Jets would be anxious to get on with it after talking about this event for months. Edmonton, meanwhile, slipped into town 48 hours before puck drop and was able to play a simple game designed to get two points.
“It’s easier to be the road team,” said McLellan. “I’m convinced of that now. In San Jose, we were the home team and there’s way more distractions. It feels like it’s a bit of a circus sometimes when you’re the home team.
“So we were able to just focus.”
It punctuated a solid first couple weeks for these Oilers, who are 5-1-0 for the first time since 1985-86. That put them atop the NHL standings on Sunday night – a distinction worth noting given that the organization has spent more than a decade wandering around the desert.
Edmonton used the Heritage Classic as an opportunity to connect its present with the past. Players dined with members of the alumni on Friday night, and wanted to perform well with so many in attendance for Sunday’s game.
“These guys kind of set the bar for what it means to be an Oiler, and we’re looking to try and continue that and kind of remake that Oiler name,” said McDavid. “I think playing for the Oilers, I certainly feel that it’s such a family.
“With the alumni, we kind of came together, and get to know each other a little bit.”
The Jets also believe that better days lie ahead. Laine is going to be a bonafide star and he’s surrounded by four other first-round picks made by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.
This weekend was a celebration of how far Winnipeg has come. The loss of the original Jets in 1996 left a scar that has since been healed over with the return of the NHL in 2011.
Now? This is fantastic place to come for a game. Memories were made here despite the result.
“I have a picture in my head of yesterday’s (alumni) game and the ‘True North’ chant that came during the national anthem,” said Maurice. “I happened to be standing behind (Jets chairman) Mark Chipman, and what I will remember the most is wondering in my own head if he understands … the impact that he had on the community.
“I wondered if in the inaugural game of the (AHL’s) Manitoba Moose years ago if (he knew) that hard work would come to this in a really short period of time. I’m just really proud to be here.”
He’s far from alone.
The Jets had a chance to put a storybook ending on a special weekend, but they didn’t spoil it by failing to deliver.
The future here has never looked brighter.