EDMONTON – The goat horns were on standby, but Nikolaj Ehlers had other ideas about the ending to the story he was authoring.
It had already been a high-event affair for the smooth-skating winger for the Winnipeg Jets and the early results weren’t pretty.
After watching his team build a 2-0 advantage while carrying a good chunk of the play, Ehlers turned the puck over in the defensive zone early in the second, allowing Elias Lindholm to help his team get back in the game.
Ehlers then found himself in the penalty box in the third period after taking a retaliatory penalty against Matthew Tkachuck, who continues to get under the skin of the opponent in this best-of-five series.
Never mind the narrative revolving around the fact he’d now gone 22 post-season games — spread over three seasons — without finding the back of the net.
Ehlers handled the questions with aplomb whenever he was asked about his extended drought and that didn’t change after he’d delivered the biggest goal of his hockey career — a greasy redirection on a power play at 10:24 of the third period that turned out to be the game-winner as the Jets earned a gutsy 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames on Monday afternoon at Rogers Place.
Never mind throwing a monkey off his back, that was an 800-pound gorilla.
Ehlers showed his sense of humour when asked about snapping the drought, though he didn’t really waver in how he’s answered questions about it in the past.
“Did you say it’s been years? I keep saying the same thing and I’m going to say it again, but you want to score goals. You want to be a difference-maker and when you’re not able to score goals, you’ve got to help the team in other ways. Of course it felt nice to finally get it and hopefully they keep coming now,” said Ehlers. “Yeah, I made a mistake on that goal, but everybody goes out there to do their best and I made a mistake. I was able to make up for it a little bit.”
That Ehlers’ first post-season marker came under circumstances that can only be defined by the outside world as bleak is somewhat fitting, judging by those of his teammates and coaches that spoke on his behalf.
“All part of [Ehlers’] journey. He’s here to make plays and to be a game-breaker in a lot of ways and it hasn’t happened for him in the playoffs,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, whose team was without the forward trio of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton. “You need to feel a part of it. You need to feel that you’re part of the cause. And he has been. He’s played some good hockey for us, but better that than a goal in a 4-1 loss.
“If you’re going to get one, he needs the game-winner in a game that we’re up against it so he gets to carry that with him and I think we’ll see maybe what we see from Nicky at times in the regular season, we get an opportunity now to see that in the playoffs. I’m happy for us first but I’m happy for him.”
Maurice wasn’t the only sharing the sentiment.
“[Ehlers is] such a key part to our team. We’re not going to go anywhere without [his] best,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “He’s gaining confidence here as we go. We’ve all seen what he’s capable of when he’s feeling good and playing as a game. We’re going to need to see more of that.
“You guys have no idea what a lift that is, especially when you’ve got to answer the same question postseason after postseason why you’re not scoring, why you’re not producing, especially a guy who’s used to doing it himself. He’s going to have a good sleep tonight, and like I said, we’re going to see some fireworks out of him hopefully tomorrow.”
The two teams are back in action on Tuesday in what could be the swing game of the series.
Ehlers was the scoring hero, but this was a prototypical and workmanlike effort by the Jets, who got contributions throughout the lineup and regained their collective composure after squandering a two-goal lead.
“Our season was on the line so I guess that makes it special. It’s one win in the long journey,” said Wheeler. “I don’t know how many wins we got this year, but a good majority of them were like that, where there was some adversity and things we had to overcome.
“We made the joke yesterday that you know things are finally back to normal. So, let’s get to work.”
And work they did.
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves or worrying about who wasn’t available, the Jets were suggesting this was just another day at the proverbial office.
While conceding these were far from optimal circumstances, there was a comfort level the Jets have when facing tough times.
“What are we going to do with a two-goal lead? That’s too easy for us. It was that type of game and we were invested in whatever it was going to take to get a win,” said Wheeler when asked about the mood after the second period. “Losing a two-goal lead, it didn’t feel like there was any let-down in our group. There was no disappointment.
“Our mindset was just finding a way to get that next goal. If it took overtime, if it took all day, we were going to find a way today. I think that was our mindset going into the third. Just stay resilient, don’t change what we’ve been doing. It’s been working. We finally got a bounce to go our way.”
Dealing with challenges is nothing new for the Jets, though being without two of their top-four scorers, plus another important penalty killer was ratcheting things up several notches.
“Pretty much throughout the year we’ve had key guys out of the lineup. That’s a testament to our team’s depth,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry, who was sporting a hat to honour his former teammate Colby Cave during the post-game media availability. “Maybe the win was improbable. I don’t think we approach the game like that. We approach every game knowing that we have a really good chance to win.
“You look at how our team is built and you know the amount of skill we have up front and the quality guys we have on the back end, you know we have a world class goalie who gives you a chance to win every night. We knew this was a really important game to get us right back in the series.”
Lowry has been a force in this series, providing a goal and an assist on Monday to go along with a helper in Game 1.
The Jets also got a big goal from rookie Jansen Harkins, who made an impact in his post-season debut.
Harkins’ story is downright remarkable.
Just two years removed from a six-game stint in the ECHL with the Jacksonville IceMen, Harkins (a second round choice in the 2015 NHL Draft) went from being a prospect on the periphery to becoming a full-time NHLer this season.
When his first opportunity to step into the lineup presented itself, he delivered a memory that will last a lifetime.
“You obviously want to make a difference,” said Harkins. “A lot of nerves and just excitement to get in there. The last thing you want to see is guys on your team go down. I just tried to step in and do my job out there and just tried to help the team any way I could. I got a great break in the first and I’m happy it went in.”
Harkins created his own breaks all season long, blossoming first into an AHL All-Star who was leading the league in scoring at one point and then into someone Maurice could count on to play up and down the lineup.
No Jets win is complete without a steady showing from goalie Connor Hellebuyck and he did his part once again, providing stability for the group while not being close to overworked.
Instead of facing a 2-0 deficit in this series, the Jets found a way to get the job done and are back on even footing.
Maurice wasn’t ready to provide a health update on the status of Scheifele, Laine or Appleton, though he couldn’t resist taking a thinly-veiled shot at Tkachuk for turning down an offer to drop the gloves with Ehlers on the sequence that ended with the Jets being shorthanded.
“[Ehlers is] sneaky tough for not a big man. He can handle himself,” said Maurice. “So, he felt that he had been slighted on the first contact in that play and may have come over and offered an opportunity that wasn’t taken up on.”
The war of words is alive and well and the temperature continues to rise.
But the upcoming response on the ice on Tuesday is going to go a long way toward deciding which Canadian team will be moving on and which one is heading home for a lengthy off-season filled with disappointment.