WINNIPEG — Let the off-season speculation begin.
On a night when All-World goalie Connor Hellebuyck did everything in his power to extend the Winnipeg Jets season, the battle for ice outside the blue paint continued to be the storyline that simply wouldn’t go away.
And when the Jets got hemmed in the defensive zone early in overtime, Cole Caufield found Tyler Toffoli for a one-timer on the doorstep that put an abrupt end to the Jets season, a 3-2 defeat at the end of this long road that will in some ways be remembered as the tale of two seasons — and the tale of two distinctly different playoff series.
The Toffoli goal was the exclamation point on a four-game sweep for the Montreal Canadiens, who have won seven games in a row after falling behind 3-1 in the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Jets didn’t hold the lead for a single second in the series and were chasing in each of the four games, which played right into the Canadiens' game plan.
“They’re such a good team when they get the lead that they play a frustrating brand of hockey. They don’t give you a lot,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry, who finished the series with two goals. “They make it tough to get to the net. Obviously, that was a big difference in the series.”
While the Jets executed their game play efficiently in the first round, their puck management wasn’t good enough and their defensive-zone coverage sprung a leak against the Canadiens.
“It was extreme, which was the case of the year, the story of the year, just extreme,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “All these things you’ve never faced before. We played an NHL season without fans in the building. We played an NHL season without a road game in our time zone. There’s a whole lot of things we’ve never dealt with before.
“And you roll through four games against a team with the two best players in the league, and you like the defensive game and then you get beat four straight times. They were good and they were better than we were in this series and they deserved to win.”
For the second consecutive playoff, Jets top centre Mark Scheifele ended the season on the sidelines.
It was an injury that knocked Scheifele out on his third shift of the series opener against the Calgary Flames in August and a four-game suspension for charging in the final minute of the opening game against the Canadiens this time around.
The circumstances were vastly different — other than being highly unpredictable events — but the end result was nearly identical.
Trying to replace a first-line pivot and play driver proved to be virtually impossible for the Jets in nearly all facets of the game.
“You can’t. I mean, he’s a top-10 player in the NHL,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who was held without a point in the four games in the series and was asked to describe the impact of Scheifele’s absence. “I’m not saying we would win the series in five games because he was in the lineup but it just changes our team.
“He makes me better. He makes Kyle (Connor) better. As a line, we’re able to do some things that are pretty dynamic and from there, the matchup just works a lot better for us because then we can rely on our depth a lot more. We can rely on Adam Lowry’s line coming out third and they dominate in that three hole. It just makes our team look a lot different. So, it’s a damn shame.”
This isn’t about playing the blame game.
The Jets simply didn’t get enough offensive contributions throughout the lineup, with rookie defenceman Logan Stanley supplying the only offence in Game 4.
By the time the series was over, the Jets had scored only six goals in total — four of which came at even strength.
The biggest issue was that three of those goals came from the defence corps, including one from Derek Forbort.
Kyle Connor had the other goal for the Jets and it came in Game 1 with the extra attacker.
Special teams were a massive factor in the series, as the Canadiens finished with a 6-1 edge in that department — with three shorthanded markers (one into an empty net) and three power play markers countered by a single shortie for the Jets.
Just like that, all of the hope built by an opening-round sweep of the Edmonton Oilers vanished into thin air.
In a season where a Canadian team was guaranteed a berth into the Final Four by winning the North Division, this series was over before it even began.
While the Jets advanced to the second round for just the second time in franchise history, it is also just the third playoff series win in 10 seasons since relocation.
Winning is incredibly difficult, but so is some of the discussions taking place during and after the exit interviews.
It would be a surprise if either Maurice or general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff were shown the door, but this roster is going to require an upgrade in order to move forward — especially as they return to the Central Division in 2021-22.
The loss of defenceman Dylan DeMelo to a soft tissue injury just 29 seconds into Game 1 against the Canadiens underscored the importance of enhancing the blue line this summer.
The Jets have high-end defence prospects in Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg ready for full-time duty in the fall and while Stanley’s emergence was an important development, they’re also likely to be shopping for an experienced blue-liner in either free agency or via trade.
Speaking of trades, Monday’s loss capped the end of a frustrating season for Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, who started the game on the second line, but also took some turns on the third and even the fourth.
Dubois played all three forward positions for the Jets and never truly found chemistry on a regular line, finishing with eight goals and 23 points in 48 games — including the post-season.
The turbulent campaign took a sideways turn nobody could have seen coming when Dubois was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets on January 23 for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
Dubois appears to be dealing with a nagging lower-body injury as he’s been unable to generate much power in his skating stride and he seemed to lose his confidence when it comes to handling the puck or looking for his shot.
The third overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft finished the campaign on a 24-game goalless drought.
Perhaps nobody is looking forward to a reset more than Dubois, who was unable to find the success he’s had previously and is sure to have plenty of motivation about the fresh start next season is going to bring.
The organization still believes in him, but it’s clear Dubois can reach another level — and the Jets will need him to if they want to take the next step as an organization.
“Part of the growth of this young man, this year will be his most important year to get him to the next level,” Maurice said. “I’ve got lots of confidence that he’s going to get there.”