WINNIPEG — This was a place the Winnipeg Jets had never been before, and at the same time a milepost they were preordained to reach one day.
You can’t get to Flin Flon from here without passing through The Pas, and you can’t get past Round 2 without solving the kind of game plan Nashville threw at Winnipeg in Game 4 Thursday night.
A Game 4 on which a series always turns, against an experienced, desperate opponent that knew it could not afford to lose. So it took the game plan and did a 180, taking run-and-gun and turning it into clog-and-dump.
Suddenly, the hockey was not so much fun to play, and the crowd grew quiet. The battles ramped up — along the boards, in the middle of the ice, for time and space — and now the young Jets weren’t cruising around at warp speed anymore.
This was your bright-eyed 16-year-old taking the driver’s licence test for the first time, then sheepishly booking another appointment for two days from now, because it was harder than they thought.
“They came with a game plan and they executed it,” veteran Jet Matt Hendricks said of the Nashville Predators, 2-1 winners here in Game 4. “They really did a good job clogging up the neutral zone; we had a hard time playing our speed, fast game through the neutral zone. They took it away.
“When you don’t have that fluent play, that quick, rush attack that we find success with, the game gets a lot harder for us. Their goaltender played well, they defended well. … That’s just the way it goes in the playoffs.”
As much as we love the rise in scoring this spring, the National Hockey League will always finds this place. Even in this glorious series, where a 3-0 lead in Game 3 was not safe and the shot attempts in Game 2 crested 185 between the two clubs. Eventually we get to a 2-1 hockey game where kids like Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers look lost, and vets like Mattias Ekholm and Viktor Arvidsson are suddenly found.
A game where every level rises: The will required to win a board battle; the smarts needed to make effective plays in ever-decreasing space; the need for support, because one’s time with the puck shrunk, and the ability to find a teammate’s tape from a distance becomes nearly impossible.
“They were really committed to clogging things up and playing a greasy road game. That’s good on them,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who doesn’t agree that his club saw something it had not seen before. “Game 3 in Minnesota, they brought it pretty hard. Game 2 in Nashville, they brought it pretty hard.
“As a whole we were just OK. They were OK. We got behind a goal and just couldn’t turn the switch tonight.”
You be the judge. If you’re reading this, you likely watched the game last night.
In a game where the style of hockey changed completely from what we had seen in Games 1-3, do we blame the Jets for simply having an off night? Or do we credit the Predators, in a game they simply could not afford to lose, with making the Jets look as discombobulated as they were?
“I think the biggest thing is,” said P.K. Subban, who now has goals in three straight games, “we had full commitment through our lineup to play defence. In our zone when bounces didn’t go our way, we worked the puck out of the zone. We got in the neutral zone, we got pucks deep, we forechecked when we needed to and we paid attention to the details.
“I think last game, the details are kind of what cost us. This game, we paid attention to all of them for a full 60 (minutes).”
Whoever is to blame, the Jets lost an inordinate percentage of puck battles in Game 4 — far too many to win a playoff game. Their defencemen chose to lug the puck rather than move it — perhaps because the forwards were in that high-traffic neutral zone and couldn’t be found with a pass.
The puck support that needed to be better was in fact worse, which left the Jets puck carrier on an island, leading to turnovers and prayer passes that were easily picked off.
The final score read 2-1. It lies.
We’ll end with Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, who lauded how the two teams played the same high-octane style, but quickly changed his game plan when he realized that symmetry didn’t work for his club.
The old coach gets the game puck in Game 4. That, and about US$8, will get him another one in Nashville Saturday night.
“I guess if you’ve been in enough series and if you coach enough playoff games,” Laviolette said, “you know that there’s nothing safe, there’s nothing given. A 1-0 lead means nothing. A 3-1 lead means nothing. Two-two doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to live every day and play every game like it could be the swing game.
“And so we go back home, it’s a best-of-three now, and our guys will be ready to play. So will Winnipeg.”
We’re going seven, folks. As if there was ever any doubt.