WINNIPEG – It is difficult to win a Stanley Cup without staring down an elimination game. The Winnipeg Jets just didn’t want to be facing one before Easter, six games into the National Hockey League playoffs.
After a bumpy regular season that followed a crushing loss in the Western Conference final last spring — when they were eliminated as heavy favourites by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights — the Jets are facing a disappointingly early end to their 2019 Cup drive.
Winnipeg plummeted 15 points in the standings this season and stumbled through the final 12 weeks of the regular season at 16-16-3. The Jets then fell into the playoffs by losing five of their last seven games.
It didn’t matter. The Stanley Cup tournament is a new season.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck wasn’t as good during the regular season as a year earlier, but he would be better in the playoffs. Key defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey were injured, but now are healthy. And sniper Patrik Laine, well, he couldn’t possibly be as innocuous in the playoffs as he was for most of the season, which he finished by scoring nine times in 58 games.
The Jets were still the Jets: big, fast and talented, and also strengthened by their 17-game playoff run in 2018.
And, yet, here they are.
The Jets face elimination Saturday against the St. Louis Blues, who lead their first-round series 3-2 with Game 6 in Missouri.
“You know it’s an elimination game; you’re not going to lie to yourself or try to paint a picture that it’s not what it is,” defenceman Jacob Trouba said Friday before the Jets travelled to St. Louis. “You have to be honest with yourself and know your back is against the wall, and we have to find a way to get this series back to Winnipeg.”
“Facing elimination can widen your eyes a little bit,” winger Andrew Copp said. “I think you can just draw from that experience last year going into Game 7 in Nashville (in the second round). We played our best game of the year. Everyone was going, the bench was right. Felt like everyone was pulling in the right direction. I feel like we’ve been at our best when our backs have been against the wall. Lean on that confidence. . . and that experience, too.”
Everyone knew this series was a toss-up at best. This is nothing like the Columbus Blue Jackets taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Blues were the best team in the Western Conference in the second half of the season, and the Jets were so not. The teams finished even on points, and Winnipeg got the extra home game on a tie-breaker.
Considering the trajectories of the teams, nobody was going to be surprised by a Jets’ defeat.
But it’s the way they’re losing, falling behind 2-0 before tying the series in St. Louis with two of their best performances since last spring, only to blow a two-goal, third-period lead and lose 3-2 Thursday at home on Blues’ Jaden Schwartz’s home-run bunt with 15 seconds remaining.
“After last night, I can’t tell you anyone was particularly happy,” Copp said. “I think this morning, there’s just a general sense that we know what we have to do. It’s not just going to be one line or one guy. It’s going to take all 20 of us that are in the lineup tomorrow. It’s not down, it’s not pessimistic. We just know what we have to do now.”
The Jets won Game 7 in Nashville last May after a stunning 4-0 loss at home in Game 6 when Winnipeg had a chance to close out the series.
Coach Paul Maurice said his team can lean on that experience now.
“It’s just the game,” he said of the mindset. “You’ve got a whole other set of emotions, usually pretty wired. But you don’t want to get outside the game. You just go out and focus on playing.”
But it’s not just a game, of course.
The Jets are often described as a young team, and many of their top players are early in their peak years.
But defencemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot are unrestricted free agents after this season, and so is energy forward Brandon Tanev, whose line – with Copp and Adam Lowry – has arguably been the best in the series.
Winger Kyle Connor, Trouba and Laine are all restricted free agents who are due hefty pay increases. Negotiations for Laine and Trouba could be especially difficult. Byfuglien is 34 years old.
The Jets may not be as good next season as they are right now, and if they shed another 15 points (or 10) in the standings, they won’t even be a playoff team.
With the Western Conference playoff bracket wide open and the Calgary Flames reeling in the Pacific Division – and the Lightning already ejected from the tournament – this might be the Jets’ best chance to seriously challenge for a Stanley Cup.
But here they are.