WINNIPEG — They were down and seemingly out.
Sent to the canvas after landing the first two big punches in this Smythe Division reunion.
But a funny thing happened on the road to this defeat, the Winnipeg Jets dusted themselves off and were able to rise up off the mat with a rally of epic proportions.
Instead of watching the Edmonton Oilers trim the series deficit to two games to one, it was the Jets who took a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series after Nikolaj Ehlers supplied the overtime winner at 9:13 of the fourth period on Sunday night.
“You always dream of scoring these kinds of goals,” said Ehlers, who missed the previous 11 games with a suspected shoulder injury he sustained on April 24. “I expect that of myself. I put enough pressure on myself to perform and that doesn’t mean just scoring goals, it means playing well. Even if you have a bad game, you go out and work hard and maybe play a little bit more simple. But I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well. Everyone in this league does it. That’s a part of it. You want to stay in this league and you’ve got to perform.
“That’s our team. I mean, we don’t give up. That’s what’s so fun playing on this team and after the OT winner you can see the joy. I mean, it’s a wonder no one got injured at the end there during the celebration.”
Earlier in the day, Jets head coach Paul Maurice was quick to temper expectations, saying he wasn’t looking for Ehlers to do anything but play the same way his teammates had been playing without him.
Maurice wasn’t asking Ehlers to ignite the offence, but his skill set was on display throughout.
There were the usual bursts of speed, the battles for the puck and the creativity to find linemates and open point men.
And then, there was that sneaky wrist shot that beat Mike Smith on two occasions, once on the power play and then after a clean faceoff win by Paul Stastny in overtime.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler admitted afterward he wasn’t all that surprised with what Ehlers was able to accomplish.
“I hate to say it, but it’s expected. I don’t take for granted how great of a player he is and what he means to our team,” said Wheeler, who scored the Jets third goal at 14:28 of the third period. “It is very difficult to do what he did tonight — to miss the amount of time he did and to come into a game of that magnitude and that speed — and not just get by but to make a huge impact.
“I mean, we were counting down the days to get him back and we were itching to get him back into our lineup. He just means so much to our team. Especially this time of year, he’s the type of guy that can flip a game on its head and make a big play for you when you need it.”
There is little time for celebration or licking the wounds, as Game 4 is on tap for Monday night at 8:45 p.m. CT.
It would have been easy for the Jets to say it simply wasn’t going to be their night, that the Oilers’ dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were due to break out offensively (combining for six points after being held off the score sheet in the first two games) and that they would simply try again another day.
Instead, the Jets didn’t abandon their structure or add to the risk profile of their game after falling behind 4-1.
Ultimately, the Oilers opened the door by taking a needless penalty and that bad decision by Josh Archibald completely changed the complexion of the contest — and quite possibly, the series.
Archibald went for a low-bridge hit and seemed to target the left knee of Jets defenceman Logan Stanley, who was lucky to avoid injury on the play.
Following the game, the NHL department of player safety announced that Archibald would have a phone hearing, which means the Oilers winger could be facing a fine or a suspension.
With Archibald in the box for tripping, the Jets cued the comeback on a power-play marker from Mathieu Perreault.
“This is the best way to make him pay for what he did,” said Perreault. “We don’t like what he did, we don’t really like to see it. It wasn’t a very good play on his part. And we’re pissed about it and we go out and score a goal and there’s no better way to (make him) pay.”
Maurice wasn’t interested in making any public declarations about what he thought about the Archibald hit.
What he was happy to discuss was the composure his team showed, first after falling behind and then not retaliating against Archibald.
“The result of it is the turning point. The key is we scored on it. That changes everything and there’s time on the clock,” said Maurice. “I’ll leave that to the referees and the league to see how they view it. But I’m glad there was a call on the play. Clearly it was a call, a rightful call. And it gave us a chance. You need the door opened somehow sometimes.
“How we finished the game was important. And then we had something good happen. And then just build on it, and find a way to keep going. Resilience will be tested over and over and over again in the playoffs. It happens in periods, it happens shift after shift. So having success by being resilient, by staying in the fight, even if you don’t know the outcome of the game, will become part of what you believe is true and become who you are.”
The Jets then struck for two goals in 16 seconds to even the score, leaving Smith with a look of bewilderment all over his face after Josh Morrissey’s rolling puck beat him at 14:44 of the third period.
About the only thing missing was the pandemonium that would have flowing through the arena had it been a full house and not just filled with white towels to try and replicate a White-Out during this pandemic.
“Honestly, I wish there were fans in this building. For a game like this, this would have been absolutely insane,” said Perreault. “I can’t even imagine. If this building was full, how crazy that would have been? We felt it on the ice and it was great. It was an awesome game.”
The Jets were thrilled with the result, but were taking a business-as-usual approach rather than taking the first steps on a victory lap.
This job isn’t complete and the Jets won’t let up until they secure one more victory.
“It means we’re up 3-0 in the series. We were able to find a way to win three games and now we’ve got to win one more,” said Perreault. “We won’t change a thing.”