Jets lose crucial game they would win ‘nine times out of 10’

Reilly Smith scored the winner as the Vegas Golden Knights took a 3-1 series lead with a 3-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

LAS VEGAS – They are the 143 seconds that have changed this series. The total time elapsed from when the Winnipeg Jets scored their first goal and allowed a response from the Vegas Golden Knights during three straight losses in the Western Conference final.

It has helped create the feeling that Winnipeg has continually played from behind since the buzzer sounded on Game 1.

In them we can find an answer to the question of why the Jets have carried play so often and still find themselves on the brink of a contemplative summer. They’ve controlled more than 54 per cent of even-strength shot attempts in the series. During a strong Game 4 they had almost 58 per cent of them – captain Blake Wheeler called it a game they win “nine times out of 10” – and yet the Jets still sulked out of here with a 3-2 loss.

On the grandest stage this franchise has ever seen, Winnipeg is getting PDO’d to death. And there may not be enough time for a market correction here with a must-win Game 5 coming quickly on Sunday afternoon.

“We like a lot of things that we did. You know, stiff opponent, they don’t make it easy on you,” coach Paul Maurice said Friday night. “But the work level and the compete level was really good [from] start to finish. So that’s what you ask of your group, to come out and compete as hard as they can. There’s always going to be things you think you can do better, move the puck a little cleaner.

“But you had 85 shot attempts. You’re playing in the right end of the rink.”

They’ve been playing there predominantly while chasing a tying goal. And, wouldn’t you know, just as soon as Patrik Laine got them one midway through Game 4, the Jets trailed again 43 seconds later when Connor Hellebuyck failed to properly control a rebound and handed it right back.

He made a similar miscue under the same circumstances in Game 3 and saw his team’s defensive coverage fall apart after a turnover following a big goal in Game 2.

That’s bound to inflict some psychological damage on a team that will find a lot more to like than correct when reviewing tape of these games. The Golden Knights are an opportunistic bunch. They didn’t score immediately after Tyler Myers again tied Friday’s game in the third period, but Reilly Smith buried the only remaining high-quality chance Vegas found itself with when the puck bounced over Dustin Byfuglien’s stick blade at the far blue line.

“I know that feeling. It’s not a great feeling,” Golden Knights defenceman Nate Schmidt said of the sequence. “Because you want to lay into it. You feel like you’re walking into a slapshot. You’re all excited. But you know you’re committed already and you can’t really turn back from there because he’s already loaded up.”

We haven’t seen that kind of finish from the Jets. Mark Scheifele is on an otherworldly goal-scoring run this spring and Laine has two power-play goals in the series, but how many Winnipeg odd-man rushes and breakaways have we watched end up under the pad or in the glove of Marc-Andre Fleury?

That’s partly great goaltending, sure, but it’s also on the shooters.

The Jets are working hard and doing the kind of things that typically lead to success. And they’re still down 3-1 to the Golden Knights.

“Tough to say,” said Myers, when asked why puck control hasn’t translated into more wins. “It just didn’t go for us tonight. I thought for the last five periods we were the much better team. Obviously, their goalie has played well. We’re coming in next game with the same mindset and try to even bump it up a notch.”

“It’s a good question,” said winger Nikolaj Ehlers. “We had our chances. A lot of chances. We played a really, really good game – played with a lot of speed, played our game and did that for a full 60 minutes.”

What they haven’t done enough of, though, is put Vegas under real duress. The uncomfortable moments for the Golden Knights would be a lot worse if the Jets didn’t keep giving up a goal right after scoring one themselves.

Heading home now with their season on the line, there isn’t all that much Winnipeg is looking to change. Maybe clean up some details. Score first. Plant even the smallest seed of doubt in the minds of these amazing Golden Misfits.

Oh, and stop shooting yourself in the foot after every breakthrough.

“On the road against a team that had 110 points and we get 40 shots. You can’t generate any more than that,” said Wheeler. “You just stay with what you do. We play that game again and it doesn’t go our way, it’s not meant to be.”

They have already gained a new appreciation for just how hard it is to get your name engraved in the rounded edges of the Stanley Cup.

The Jets are close. But it’s slipping away from them in the blink of an eye.

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