This was no way for Jake Evans to be celebrating his 25th birthday — stretchered off the ice after scoring the insurance marker in this opening win of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for his Montreal Canadiens.
With just under a minute to go in the third period of Game 1 between the Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets, Evans chased down a puck in the offensive zone, caught up to it behind the net, curled in front and scored his first-ever playoff goal to make it 5-3. It was right after the puck went in that Evans took the full brunt of a charge from Mark Scheifele. He was knocked unconscious before his body even hit the ice.
Scheifele, who led the Jets with 63 points in the regular season and co-leads them with five in these playoffs, was assessed a five-minute charging penalty and a 10-minute game misconduct. How much more he receives for the hit Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi called “disgusting” will be determined by the NHL’s department of player safety. Scheifele has no suspension history.
“We haven’t talked to the league,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “I think it’s pretty obvious they’re going to look at the incident. Like I said, we haven’t talked to them, but yeah, we’re confident they’re going to take the decision and make the right decision.”
Joel Edmundson, who had two assists, five shots on net and led all Canadiens with eight attempts in the game called Scheifele’s hit “dirty.”
“If he gets back in this series, we’re going make his life miserable,” Edmundson added.
He was clearly disturbed, as were the Canadiens as Evans lay motionless on the ice.
A scrum ensued, and that’s when Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers made a classy gesture to shield Evans from any collateral damage.
“I hope he’s OK,” said Ehlers. “I came back and saw that he wasn’t looking good. When something like that happens there tends to be a scrum, so I was just trying to keep everyone away from him. In a situation like that, you don’t want anyone falling on top of him. I was just trying to keep everyone away.”
After Evans came to, he was placed on a backboard and taken off the ice by medical personnel.
“He’s still here,” Ducharme responded when he was asked if Evans had been transported to a local hospital. “He’s being evaluated. He’s doing better, but before I got here he was still in evaluation.”
No further update on Evans’s condition is expected before Thursday.
Ducharme called the play “vicious” and “useless.” Kotkaniemi said it was a gesture that showed “no respect” to the opponent.
Who would argue against any of that?
Jets coach Paul Maurice noted, “It’s such a highly unusual play because you’re backchecking to kill an empty-net play, you’re coming full speed. When Mark stopped skating, he kept his arms in.”
But Maurice also said, “It’s a heavy, heavy hit, there’s no doubt about that. I’m sure the league will have its opinion.”
Scheifele took a run from his own side of centre in an attempt to get back to the net to prevent the goal. He was late to arrive and had no chance of doing it.
When he realized that, you could clearly see him target Evans before delivering the predatory hit. It was a charge from over 100 feet away, with a devastating affect that sucked the life out of Bell MTS Centre and rendered the result of the game secondary.
“It’s frustrating,” said Edmundson. “I was following him up the ice and I saw how dirty of a hit it was right away. And to see him laying there — obviously, you never want to see that. And something like that happened last series (when Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares was stretchered off the ice after an accidental collision with Montreal’s Corey Perry in Game 1). It just kills the vibe and you just hope he’s OK.”
Perry said Evans clearly wasn’t, and he wasn’t communicating from the stretcher. Perry added he was relieved to see Evans moving his hands at least.
Both players had a considerable part in what was a banner night for the Canadiens. Coming off their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Maple Leafs, which was completed Monday, their win over the Jets on Wednesday gave them their first four-game winning streak of 2021.
Kotkaniemi opened the scoring to extend his team-lead with his fourth goal of the playoffs. It was just 1:40 later, at the 5:10 mark of the first period, that Perry cut to the middle, took an elbow to the face from Logan Stanley — which he said should also be reviewed by the league — and set up Eric Staal’s first goal of the playoffs.
Nick Suzuki made it 3-1 Montreal after Adam Lowry scored short-handed for the Jets, and the Canadiens got goals from Brendan Gallagher and Evans to seal the result.
Their defencemen had combined for just two assists in seven games against Toronto, but they put up six in this one against the Jets. The team’s power play remained hot, collecting it’s fourth goal in its last nine attempts. And this win extended Montreal’s streak to 5-0 in these playoffs when scoring at least two goals.
It was as complete a game as the Canadiens have played all year — a sharp contrast to what the Jets offered after a four-game sweep over the Edmonton Oilers in Round 1.
The night started badly for Winnipeg when Paul Stastny didn’t come out for warmup. Then top-pairing defenceman Dylan DeMelo left after an awkward collision with Gallagher 29 seconds into his first shift.
Lowry was out for an extended period after taking an errant puck to the head, but he returned to finish the game. Scheifele could be out much longer after being sent to the locker room with 57 seconds remaining.
That will be one topic closely monitored Thursday. The other, of course, will be Evans’s health.
The Toronto native suffered a head injury in last year’s playoffs, too. He suffered another one at Canadiens rookie camp in 2018, just months after completing his fourth season at the University of Notre Dame and signing his entry-level contract with the team.
The road to this point of his career was a remarkable climb — from being a seventh-round draft pick in 2014 to becoming a strong AHL player for parts of two seasons to evolving into a player Ducharme was willing to slot onto his top line in the playoffs.
Evans started on the fourth and was hurt in Game 1 of the series with the Maple Leafs. He returned for Game 5 on May 29 and spent the rest of the games in an integral role — helping the Canadiens shut down superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. He was once again at his best Wednesday before Scheifele knocked him out.
Kotkaniemi summed up his importance to the team saying, “Jake is — I think you guys don’t even know — he’s a great guy in the room.”
“He’s super funny guy, he keeps the energy up in the room,” Kotkaniemi continued. “I think he’s one of those guys that when you want to win the games you put him out there. Even when you want to get a goal or make sure the other team’s not scoring, he’s just one of those playoff guys.”
The Canadiens will hope Evans returns to being one of the guys in short order. They’re unquestionably — and justifiably — outraged that his presence in this series was put in doubt by such a reckless and dangerous play.
“It’s tough,” said Perry. “It was a huge win for us, but it was definitely emotional out there at the end. We’re going to think about him, we’re going to talk to him and see how he’s doing and all that for the rest of the night.
But it’s tough when you see that.”