WINNIPEG – A special spring can turn sour in a moment’s notice. Six days after leading the Western Conference final 1-0, the Winnipeg Jets are dealing with the reality that they’ll be watching an expansion team play for the Stanley Cup.
It could have been them.
“Pretty empty,” said Blake Wheeler. “Emotionless.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s all over,” said Mathieu Perreault. “We really thought we were going to do it this year.”
“[I feel like] [expletive], pretty much,” said Patrik Laine.
It’s a feeling felt throughout a city that celebrated the end of a long winter by filling the streets for each home playoff game. Businesses showed their support with “Go Jets Go!” signs in windows. More than one local car dealer filled his lot with exclusively white vehicles to match the whiteout inside the Bell MTS Place.
And on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the power went out.
Not literally, mind you, but emotionally. Spiritually. The Jets scored more goals this season than all but one team and then ran into a brick wall named Marc-Andre Fleury. They only put six pucks behind the Vegas Golden Knights goalie over the final four games – scoring just once while playing for their lives in Game 5.
“It was their time,” said Wheeler. “They’re playing really well and you have to give them all the credit. Typically in a seven-game series the better teams wins. Coming into it, I thought we had the best team – obviously I’m a little bit biased standing in this room. Felt we had a great opportunity and that team, you know, it was their time.
“They made it really tough for us, we had to work for everything we got and even when we broke them down we couldn’t seem to ever gain the type of momentum we needed to get this thing on our terms.”
They never led after the final buzzer sounded on Game 1. The list of players who failed to score a goal in this series will tell you a lot about why we’re already talking about the end of the best Jets season in history. It includes Wheeler, Perreault, Paul Stastny, Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little, to name but a few.
It’s possible that youth eventually caught up to the Jets when the pressure got ratcheted and the amount of open ice shrunk.
Ehlers and Kyle Connor both had fantastic regular seasons but didn’t make much of an impact in the playoffs. Laine scored two power-play goals against Vegas but wasn’t nearly the same threat we’ve seen previously.
The 20-year-old Finn put just one shot on target in Sunday’s 2-1 loss, bemoaning a couple others he fired high or wide.
“Just for me, I couldn’t shoot,” said Laine. “I don’t know what was wrong with that, I had a lot of good chances, just couldn’t hit the puck or the net. That’s my responsibility to be able to shoot, and I couldn’t do that today.”
They also ran into a team that seems to have destiny on its side.
The winning goal came off a double tip and belonged to Ryan Reaves, one of Winnipeg’s own sons who was scoring for just the second time in his 42nd career playoff game. The stick he used to score it is now heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Fleury casually posted an eye-popping .938 save percentage in this series, doing his best work in Games 3 and 4 at T-Mobile Arena where the Jets controlled a huge portion of the play.
Winnipeg had 33 high-danger chances combined in those games. Back home Sunday and playing to keep the dream alive, they managed just eight of those against a much stingier Golden Knights attack.
The most dangerous saw Perreault get open in the slot and miss Little’s pass entirely. From the play-by-play booth, Jim Hughson bellowed “swing and miss!”
That sums up the opportunity Winnipeg let slip away here. The Jets were trying to end a city’s championship drought in hockey that stretches back to the WHA days, and a country’s Stanley Cup drought that now sits at 25 years.
Meanwhile, the Golden Knights might lift that picturesque trophy before their first birthday.
“We tried so hard, too, left it all out there,” said Perreault. “It’s so disappointing when you put so much effort into it and the result’s just not there. It’s tough to swallow.”
The Jets were in no mood to make excuses in the minutes after the curtain fell, but they undoubtedly had difficulty getting back to their top level after an epic seven-game series with Nashville in the second round. Fatigue is a fact of life when you’re playing your 99th game of the season.
Vegas managed a slightly easier road to this point by sweeping Los Angeles in Round 1 and dispatching San Jose in six games in Round 2.
“A lot of the plays did not come off our stick the way they had prior to it, and it wasn’t a matter of tightness. Our hands felt it,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Your brain goes a little slower, it gets off your stick a little quicker, your reads are a little slower. But the will was still there.
“There were things that didn’t happen for us this series. Some of it was mental, but it was the physical fatigue caused by having to spend as much as we spent to get here.”
This Stanley Cup final will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The Golden Misfits against a team with a gripping redemption story – either Steven Stamkos’s Tampa Bay Lightning or Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals.
It’s going to be impossible for Winnipeg to watch.
On a 26-degree afternoon where goals were nowhere to be found, the hockey season came to an end for a lot of people here. It’s over.