LAS VEGAS — There are mistakes you can make in the regular season, and survive. Or perhaps even in Round 1.
But three blatant miscues by three separate Jets players led to all three Vegas goals in a 4-2, empty-net goal loss here in Game 3. We are just too far along, the opponent too opportunistic, to reap any reward from a game in which the mistakes are this costly.
“Yes, I think that’s fair,” began head coach Paul Maurice, when asked about neutral zone turnovers by Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor that turned into goals, and the freebie Connor Hellebuyck coughed up just 12 seconds after the Jets had tied the game at 1-1.
“Those weren’t the only ones … and each one of those guys has been game winners for us, and played great. So in the body of their work, it’s not part of their game,” he said. “But they have some good sticks (Vegas). Knocked some stuff down.”
This is your reward for still suiting up on May 16, the prize for being a Final Four team. Every single mistake could turn into a crippling miscue, the same way every bit of fortune could label you a hero.
It’s better than worrying over a missed putt, right?
Sometimes, you get away with them. Maybe a teammate makes a play, or the goalie saves your bacon.
But in Game 3, with goals so precious, it was Hellebuyck who gave up the biggest freebie of the night when he tried to sneak a puck between Erik Haula and the boards behind the Jets net, just seconds after Scheifele had evened the game.
Haula pulled the puck down, like so many players of this caliber are likely to do, and quickly fed James Neal in front of an empty net. Yes, things happen fast in the NHL. But letting the momentum evaporate that fast was wasteful, on a goal that Vegas just didn’t have to work hard enough to get.
“No, I don’t think that’s fair at all,” countered Hellebuyck. “The guy knocked it out of mid-air. He made a good play on it. I’ve been doing that all year long.
“It’s unlucky that he knocked that one down. I don’t know that he was even looking. He might have just swung his stick at it. But good play on him. I’m going to clean that one up. I haven’t given it away too many times this year. So we gotta put that one behind us.”
Look, everyone makes a mistake. We’re not here to crucify every guy who coughs one up.
Heck, even Mark Scheifele was responsible for the first goal against. Is anyone going to spend a lot of time critiquing his game? Not me.
But there’s looking ahead, and there is outright denial.
Haula wasn’t lucky. And he WAS looking.
Hellebuyck made a play that cost the Jets momentum, cost his team a goal, and in the end put Winnipeg in a position where it needed to beat Marc-Andre Fleury four times to win this playoff game.
“Prior to it getting to 1-1, we were starting to move the way we wanted to. That was a big one. We clearly need to not have it,” allowed Maurice. “The bench felt right. Momentum is up for grabs every single time the puck drops. We had it and they certainly seized it.”
So it takes near perfect hockey to beat a team as good as the Golden Knights, with a level of play as high as we are seeing in this Round 3 series.
Right, Blake Wheeler?
“Nope. There’s no such thing as perfect or close to perfect,” the Jets captain said, rifling the question right back at the questioner. “Hockey’s one of the most imperfect games there is, because you’ve got a puck bouncing all over the place.
“They’re not playing perfect hockey. They’re playing really well because they’re a very good team. You put yourself in a tough position when you’re down by a couple goals on the road, tough environment against a good team. So the onus is on us to get off to a better start.”
“A better start.” One with less mistakes.
Look, this was simply a game where the opportunistic Vegas forwards jumped on every Jets miscue, and Fleury stood on his head to make sure that lead held up. Neither team was any better than the other in Game 3, but Vegas won.
Now, the Jets will have to get their heads around their first two-game losing streak since mid-March, and the fact that they are trailing in a playoff series for the first time this spring.
You see, this is not an easy road, nor is it supposed to be. Games like these get overcome by the teams that hoist Big Stanley, or separate the wheat from the chaffe along the playoff road, by weeding out those who can’t.
“That’s an important challenge,” admitted Maurice. “We’re going to have to be able to handle that.”
So what happens next?
“We want to make sure we deal with our loss, don’t carry it too heavily and then come up with our finest game of the post-season.”
We’ve little doubt these Winnipeg Jets will.