WINNIPEG – They picked right up where they left things off after the biggest win in franchise history. It was 3-0 for the Winnipeg Jets before the game was even eight minutes old, making the frenzied whiteout inside this building feel more like an avalanche burying the Vegas Golden Knights.
“We didn’t have much of a rest,” said Dustin Byfuglien, who got the scoring started after just 65 seconds. “We were still in game mode.”
But it was how the Jets polished off Saturday’s 4-2 victory to open the Western Conference final that spoke loudest about this team’s growing Stanley Cup aspirations.
They had plenty of excuses at the ready if they started missing some details, whether it be the 47-hour turnaround from Thursday’s emotional Game 7 victory in Nashville or their arrival back home in the wee hours of Friday morning. Vegas hadn’t played since last Sunday and used the five-day break to rest up and work on its game plan.
Given the circumstances, you expected a strong third-period push. Only it didn’t come. The Golden Knights generated some decent zone time in the final 20 minutes but couldn’t really break through the wall protecting the middle of the ice in Winnipeg’s end.
They managed to get just three shots through on Connor Hellebuyck before pulling their own goalie for a 6-on-5 advantage with less than three minutes to play. Trailing by two, Vegas wasn’t credited with any high-danger chances in the final period, according to naturalstattrick.com.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of managing the puck,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “I thought we did a good job of not turning pucks over at our blue line and in the neutral zone and at theirs, which if you are, they’re going to be coming at you in a hurry. Especially if they’re down a goal, their ‘D’ are going to be up there for sure and they’ve got some guys that can really move.
“I thought our exits out of our zone were pretty good, pretty efficient. A couple times I think we could clean it up a little bit where we got scrambling. Just having that desperation with a two-goal lead to commit to blocking a shot or chipping a puck out, taking a hit, that kind of stuff.”
It ensured that an electric start wouldn’t go to waste.
The Jets have shown themselves to be elite finishers – with a 42-1-1 record when leading after 40 minutes in the regular season, and now a 9-0-0 mark in the playoffs – but you couldn’t be sure it would hold under these conditions. Even Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wasn’t sure what he’d get as the night wore on and the legs got heavy.
“We had a potential advantage and a potential disadvantage in this game,” said Maurice. “The advantage would be that we’re coming right off a very intense series, so our starting point would probably be there. The disadvantage was that it was seven games and there was some travel involved, so you don’t know about your ability to sustain that through 60 [minutes] in the first one back.”
By now it’s no secret that the Jets can make offensive plays. You had captain Blake Wheeler covering back on defence when Byfuglien jumped up and stepped into a Mark Scheifele drop pass to make it 1-0 on the first shift of the night.
It was Byfuglien who then miraculously held the offensive zone on a power play, allowing Wheeler to find Patrik Laine with a perfect cross-ice feed for the second goal. The third came on a gritty – if not controversial – sequence as Joel Armia bumped into Marc-Andre Fleury in his crease while the puck banked in off his skate, a play where the initial no-goal call was overturned on video review.
Winnipeg whiffed on a couple 3-on-1 chances and it could easily have been much worse than 3-1 at the first intermission. They were dominating. You could see why Maurice had labelled this “the most skilled group that I’ve ever coached – and it really wouldn’t be close.”
“It’s way more fun to coach a group like this,” he added. “We don’t really manage the mistakes, you know, we’re trying to find places to be good. Where is our strengths? How can we get more of our strengths in the game?”
With the margin for error shrinking and the stakes rising, they still need to manage situations within the game. Maurice opted to match Scheifele against the top Vegas trio at even strength and William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith got some looks.
They also got a power-play goal late in the second period to get it back to 4-2 after Scheifele had scored his 12th of the playoffs, but the Jets wouldn’t let them creep closer.
In the eyes of Paul Stastny, it was a sign that they’d discovered the recipe needed to find success in big games. The veteran centre believes they found the formula while winning three road games against the Predators last round.
“We’re just moving a lot. The less turnovers we have the faster we go,” Stastny said in describing what it looks like. “The more times we turn it over, we feed it into their game and in turn it makes us look slow. For us, it’s sometimes not making that extra play. Sometimes we get in trouble when we do have the lead, we try that extra play and it sometimes backfires on us.
“We have to keep trying to be aggressive, keep getting those shots on net.”
That was one area where they fell a bit short in Game 1. They didn’t push the pace right until the end. But Stastny acknowledged feeling a “little exhausted” after all they’d been through this week and could find some extra satisfaction in the way this skilled bunch managed to will its way to the final buzzer.
“We did a pretty good job at it,” said Morrissey. “I’m sure there’s going to be video where we can improve, but I thought we committed to the game plan and that’s why we had success.”
On a night where success was far from guaranteed, they instead moved one win closer to lifting the Stanley Cup.