WINNIPEG - The stage was set and the props were out in full force — even if they weren’t brought into the building.
Although fans aren’t allowed in Canada during the pandemic, a parade of vehicles circled around Bell MTS Place hours before puck drop, with plenty of fans waving brooms out the windows as horns honked wildly.
With one more victory, the Winnipeg Jets would have the opportunity to celebrate something that hadn’t happened since the final season of the World Hockey Association.
Yes, the history is a bit complicated when it comes to the 2.0 version of the Jets, but many fans in friendly Manitoba haven’t forgotten the dominance of those dynastic Oilers teams of the 1980s and 90s.
And while this was officially the first meeting between the Smythe Division rivals, folks of a certain vintage around these parts still have some emotional scar tissue to sort through.
The 1.0 version of the Jets dropped six consecutive playoff series to the Oilers, including the one in 1990 -- the one considered to provide the biggest heartbreak.
Dave Ellett scored in double overtime to put the Jets up 3-1 in the series that year and it was supposed to be a chance to rewrite history.
Instead, the Oilers overcame a 3-1 deficit in Game 5 and won the final three games of the series, leaving the Jets and their fan base to feel another dose of agony.
After the Jets took a commanding 3-0 series lead by winning consecutive overtime victories in Games 2 and 3, the pent-up energy was palpable.
Would the Jets be able to close the series out after rallying from a 4-1 deficit in the third period of Game 3 to win 5-4 in overtime?
The answer was a resounding yes, though the Oilers didn’t exactly go quietly as six periods were required before a winner would be declared.
But after Neal Pionk forced Oilers captain Connor McDavid to turn the puck over, Kyle Connor got in alone and beat Mike Smith with a wrist shot at 6:52 of triple overtime to secure a 4-3 victory and a 4-0 series sweep in what was the longest game in franchise history.
Talk about an unlikely turn of events for a Jets team that had dropped seven of nine games to the Oilers in the regular season, including the final six meetings.
The Jets seemingly hit rock bottom in a 6-1 loss to the Oilers that featured five goals allowed on the rush. That one-sided defeat helped the Jets make a renewed commitment to defending and to not feeding the transition game of the opponent.
Although that didn’t immediately translate into results, the Jets didn’t let a seven-game losing streak sink their season.
Neither did dropping nine of the final 12 regular-season games.
Instead of folding and suffering a third consecutive early exit, the Jets used the difficult stretch to embolden their belief in what the group could accomplish if they stuck to their structure.
When players talk about not wanting to give an opponent any life after taking a 3-0 series advantage, captain Blake Wheeler speaks with first-hand experience as a member of the 2010 Boston Bruins team that ended up losing in Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
“It was kind of just a crazy day because you knew what was at stake tonight. Listen, I've been on the wrong side of being up 3-0 and losing it all, so for me, it was kind of like, you just don't want to lose,” said Wheeler, who finished with two goals and five points in the series. “You don't want to miss out on that opportunity to close a team out, especially a team that's capable of coming back, winning four games straight as Edmonton. I mean, razor-thin margin.
“They easily could have won every one of those games. So, to answer your question, I think once we got into the second overtime, it was kind of just almost robotic. Nobody wanted to make a mistake and everyone was exhausted. We played an overtime game yesterday. We played four Stanley Cup playoff games in six days. It's not often you see a breakaway in triple overtime to solve it but, tell you what, we had the right guy on the breakaway. We’re pretty gassed, but we’re pumped up in our room.”
When the Jets power play struck on Mark Scheifele’s first goal of the playoffs after a brilliant cross-seam feed, the home side was off and running.
McDavid wasn’t ready to see his team go quietly into the night and his wraparound gave his team hope.
While the Jets restored a one-goal cushion on a nifty redirection from Mason Appleton late in the first period, it was the Oilers that responded with a goal from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and a power-play marker from Alex Chiasson in the second.
Discipline was an issue for the Jets, who took four consecutive minor penalties after the Oilers took the first three.
Just when it looked like the Oilers might build a two-goal cushion, the Jets were able to kill off a minor to Josh Morrissey and Scheifele scored his second of the game after a costly turnover from Ethan Bear.
Wheeler chipped in a pair of assists and continued his excellent play, but left the game late in the third period after blocking a shot in a sensitive area below the belt from Kris Russell.
Wheeler, who is known for having a pain tolerance and played with cracked ribs earlier this season, came out of the tunnel for overtime and finished the game.
“He's been doing it all series,” said Connor. “That was a huge block. Fired me up. It's obviously tough to see a guy go down like that. But it's part of the job. And we've got a whole lineup of guys buying in. It's the playoffs. He's a warrior, and right back at it.”
Wheeler wasn’t looking for any sympathy when asked about the play in question.
“I'm sure everyone on this call has had experiences like that or something similar, not necessarily a slap shot,” said Wheeler. “I mean, everyone on our team did that all series long, all game long. We put an emphasis on getting to the shot at the point, and Matty Perreault blocked two shots. So that then and there set the standard that every single guy was going to put their body in front of the puck. And in the third period of a tight game, you'll put anything in front of it."
The Jets’ reunited top line of Scheifele between Wheeler and Connor embraced the challenge of going head-to-head against McDavid and they did a solid job while splitting the responsibility with Adam Lowry’s line.
In all, Scheifele scored twice and Connor closed it out, with Wheeler adding a pair of assists as something of an exclamation point.
This wasn’t just about recording the points, it was about the effort in all three zones, which was part of the reason McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were held without a point in the first two games.
“We expect a lot out of ourselves, especially with the guys they have on the other side,” said Scheifele. “With Connor and Leon, you’ve got to bring it every single night or they’ll make you pay.
“The biggest player who kept us in there was this guy beside me.”
That guy beside Scheifele on the Zoom call was Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who came into this series as a man on a mission, determined to deliver a performance for the ages.
Hellebuyck stopped 70 of 71 shots he faced through the two road games, then came home to post 44 saves in Game 3 and another 37 in Game 4.
The Vezina Trophy winner level has returned and it’s one of the reasons nobody will view the Jets as an easy out as the playoffs continue.
Naturally, Hellebuyck was tossing around compliments to his teammates instead of basking in the glory.
“I feel like I’ve been saying this all year, that this team and these guys can do everything,” said Hellebuyck. “If we need to shut down a game, we shut down a game. If we need to score, we score. If we need to come back with 10 minutes left in the third, we do that.
“Just being behind these guys, it’s been a pleasure and it’s fun to watch.”
One of the biggest benefits for the Jets was that after needing to play five overtime periods, now they’ll have an opportunity to recuperate before the next round starts.
“It definitely didn’t feel like a sweep, that’s for sure,” said Scheifele. “We grinded every single game, there was no easy ice out there. It was a battle each and every game, each and every shift.”
The Jets would love to go on a run that’s reminiscent of the 2018 trip to the Western Conference Final, but they know this is nothing more than the first step.
A necessary one, but nowhere near the ultimate goal.
“You've got to be really careful to start putting into context after the first round of the playoff experience,” said Wheeler. “It's certainly what I envisioned, what Kyle (Connor) envisioned, I could go through a locker-room full of guys that have committed to this team and this city. Because we committed to each other, right? And with the idea that we believed that we could win.
“So this is just a step in that progression. We built some experience over the last few years. We've had some success, some heartbreak at this time of year. And we're trying to draw off those experiences. More than anything, I think there's a certain maturity that we've accumulated. I can go through the guys that have been here for a while. They're not kids anymore. They're entering the primes of their career and those are the guys that committed long-term and give us a chance to win. That's all you can ask for. Ask for a chance.”
A first-round elimination of the Oilers won’t erase the nightmares of Jets 1.0, but a first-round sweep over a team that features two of the best players in the NHL will certainly help to dull some of the pain.