Jets and Ducks deliver an instant classic

The Winnipeg Jets blew three different leads and lost 5-4 in overtime, thanks to Rickard Rakell’s tip-in from Francois Beauchemin’s point shot. Anaheim now has a commanding 3-0 series lead.

WINNIPEG—It was one of those nights. One of those crazy, old nights.

History offered a challenge, and hockey responded. As did Manitoba’s capital, producing an unforgettable occasion, a sporting memory pure and firm and lasting.

We shall remember this night.

It ended not as Winnipeg wanted, not as much as Canada wanted, not as one of Canada’s richest men wanted, but with a redirection by the relatively unknown Rickard Rakell off a point shot from Francois Beauchemin at 5:12 of overtime to end a raucous, rollicking night of hockey in favour of the Anaheim Ducks, not the hometown Jets.

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The final score was 5-4, a lot of goals given the way NHL hockey is usually played these days, and as such a reasonably accurate numerical depiction of what had happened on a wild, crazy, unusual evening.

It ended with brutish suddenness, as terrific playoff games that go to extra time always do, and produced a sudden, shocked quiet from an audience at the MTS Centre crowd that had roared all night, sometimes louder, sometimes less so when moments went against their team.

It went quiet as the Ducks celebrated and the exits began to fill with the disappointed, and as it began to sink in that with the Jets now facing a 3-0 deficit, their magical season is, barring a miracle, almost over. And then, from the northeast corner of the rink, the end where the Manitoba Moose banners hang, a plaintive but hopeful chant began anew, and then grew louder.

“Go Jets Go.”

Yes, it was such a night. It might have been enough just to have the game played after 19 dark Stanley Cup playoff years here, and it might have been enough just to end Norm Maciver’s distinction as the last Jet to score in an NHL post-season game back when tickets were $25, and it might have been enough just to say Game 3 was undeniable Canadian hockey history lived out in front of us.

But on top of all that, the Jets and Ducks delivered a barnburner–a taut, terrific evening of hockey. The best hockey, filled with goals and bounces and lead changes, hard and uncompromising, but without the stupidity of cheap nonsense so often presented as manly, one-for-all team play, but is really mostly peevish selfishness.

The Jets and Ducks skated as though, like those Jets 19 years ago, this was the last game they would get to play on this rink, in this time and moment. They hammered away at each other, with nasty elbows, knee and shoulders, daring each other to deliver punishment within the rules, and then accept the same in return because that’s what you do if you want to have a chance to win 16 games in the spring and live forever.

With the spring snow blowing sideways outside as if to accompany the “whiteout” within the walls, the fans started hollering in warmup and kept hollering. They cheered the big and the small, like Lee Stempniak’s opening goal, the first playoff score by a Winnipeg Jet since Jean Chretien was Prime Minister, like Andrew Ladd alertly kicking the puck out of the zone with five minutes left in the third after losing his stick, like Ondrej Pavelec turning away another Anaheim attempt.

The fans chanted playfully and derisively, saving their most co-ordinated barbs for Ryan Kesler, a former Moose player, and Corey Perry. They looked to the skies when Dustin Byfuglien did the unnecessary or when Bryan Little missed yet another golden chance, then erupted in pure joy when Little, finally, blistered a shot to the top corner to put Winnipeg ahead 4-3 in the second period.

The Jets tried to make that lead last against a Ducks team that comes from behind in the third period like no other NHL club, almost routinely, really. Winnipeg kept skating in the third as they had to, kept pushing and even generated more scoring opportunities than Anaheim. They desperately wanted that fifth goal, and knew they needed it.

Then, with just over two minutes left before the Jets could end a long playoff losing streak at six, it was Jakob Silfverberg who hurt them again, the same Silfverberg who had scored with 21 seconds left in Game 2 to win that game on Saturday night. This time he orchestrated a goal by the hated Kesler, and for the third time in three games the Jets were unable to protect a third period lead.

So damn frustrating. So close. A one-goal lead against Anaheim, warned Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice in the morning, was not something Winnipeg could confidently hope to make stand. He was unhappily correct, and for the 21st time this season, the Ducks turned a third period deficit into victory.

How do they do it, time and time again? Confidently, that’s for sure, enough that Kesler told Sportnet’s Cassie Campbell during the break between the third and OT that of course he believed his team would just go out and there and do it one more time. And they did.

And so, a Canadian city that has only celebrated two NHL playoff series by the Jets ever, and then refused to stop loving the idea of the Jets when the team was ripped away and sold to Phoenix, absorbed yet another body blow in a hockey lifetime of body blows.

Rakell’s deflection knocked the wind out of the hardiest Winnipeg hockey fan, who now has to regroup and scream his or her lungs out again on Wednesday night, ignoring the obvious hopelessness of the situation and embracing the possible, because other teams have done it and because nobody thought the Jets could beat out L.A. for a playoff spot and they did, and because that’s what you do when you love hockey more now having lost it once before.

“There’s a real connection here, an appreciation for this team, that they’re back,” mused Maurice hours before the game. “The fans here come up and thank you. You get the feeling you’re the teacher here and you’ve got their kids, and their kids are finally getting some good marks.”

Perhaps not straight “A’s,” and there will be criticisms of individual Jets for the way Game 3 went. But good marks, marks for effort and diligence and try that make a city think a hockey team is an accurate reflection of how it feels and who it is.

Marks of satisfaction from the knowledgeable that understand Nik Ehlers and Josh Morrissey are coming, and that while this team is undeniably special in many ways, it’s not yet good enough to be a champion, but might be in several years.

The Jets lost none of those marks in losing Game 3. Even in defeat, they produced, for the country and their city, a sporting memory pure and firm. And lasting.

With a tinge of sadness, perhaps, we shall remember this night.

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