NASHVILLE — This is how the Winnipeg Jets get where they’re going. This is the gravel road, dusty with disappointment. Pocked with tough calls and crushing losses.
This is Winnipeg’s reward for finally building a team with a chance. Now it gets to fail.
Because fail you must, before you are ever going to succeed against a Nashville Predators club that left on this road trip about 10 years before the Jets took off.
“In overtime, you could tell: We weren’t going to lose,” said Nashville vet Mike Fisher, who bears the scars of that failed ’07 Cup run with Ottawa, and again last spring with the Predators. “We’ve done it before, been there. Definitely during the season we’ve won in a lot of ways.
“Our belief system is so strong,” he said. “This is where you really use it.”
The cliché tells us that you learn more from losing than you do from winning. “Most teams do,” said Fisher. “We have.”
The reality is, it’s not just a cliché.
“These are tests, this time of year,” said 36-year-old Jets centreman Matt Hendricks, an annual loser in Washington earlier in his career whose luck was poor in this 5-4 double-overtime loss for Winnipeg. “This is the hardest championship to win in pro sports, and getting into these extra overtimes and testing your will, testing your conditioning and testing your mental game? This is what everybody has to go through.”
So, here’s the problem. The Jets are “going through” this. Nashville has gone through it.
When Mark Scheifele scored the hero goal, tying the game with 65 seconds to play, 11 of the 20-man Jets roster had never gone to overtime in an NHL playoff game. Across the way, the only Preds OT virgin was backup goalie Juuse Saros. Everyone else was battle tested.
That’s what seven playoff appearances in the past nine seasons buys a team, every single one ending in a loss, the latest against Pittsburgh last June.
The Jets? They’ve made the playoffs twice in the past 11 years. But they are fast learners, and sometimes the freshman does beat the senior. It nearly happened twice here in Nashville this weekend.
“We got better over that day and a half (since Game 1),” said Hendricks, “and you can see the belief system in this room, and the resolve, and all those cliché words. They’re there, and they’re real. And you can feel them in here.
“You’ve got 21-year-old guys coming in here and saying all the right things. But they’re going on the ice and doing the right things too, and they’re playing hard.”
Before our eyes this spring, Scheifele is cementing his name into that group of young Canadian superstars who will inherit the Maple Leaf when next our national team assembles. With eight goals this spring — two more in Game 2 — Scheifele is right there with players like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall who will accept the torch from players like Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry when the next World Cup or Olympics roll around.
Scheifele came into the game with a shooting percentage of 37.5, then buried both his shots behind Pekka Rinne, the last one an absolutely clutch one-timer with the goalie pulled and the game on the line. He is truly a fabulous player, who will one day end a game like this one, rather than fall on the side his Jets did on a Sunday evening in Music City.
“When he runs hot,” said his setup man Blake Wheeler, “he can put it in the net with the best of them.”
It was a track meet of the swiftest order in Game 2, a maturation of this series into exactly what we had hoped: Two teams so fast and skilled that even the craftiest, most innovative coaches are not able to squeeze the entertainment out of the game.
They played 6-5 hockey on a couple of occasions in the regular season, and 5-4 in double OT would surely be the playoff equivalent of that. It isn’t often a team gets scored on by the Preds just 27 seconds into a game in this raucous, wild arena, and then scraps back to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, but the Jets did exactly that.
This was just fabulous hockey to watch, whether you had a dog in the fight or not.
“There was a point in the second period,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, “where it was just up and down, as fast as two teams could go. Close to 200 (shot) attempts, probably. You’re looking at close to 100 shots. You’re looking at probably 60 chances…”
And when it was said and done, the goal that mattered fell to the senior. Not the freshman, this time around.
“That’s what makes the playoffs so special, is finding ways to win games like that,” P.K. Subban said after the game. “And I’m excited for our hockey club to go into that building, probably one of the toughest buildings to play in, and we’re going to gain a ton of experience from this.”
Still learning, after all these lessons.
That’s the other problem Winnipeg has here. It’s hard to catch up.