WINNIPEG — There’s nothing quite like an unexpected shot to the solar plexus to end an emotional weekend.
With the Winnipeg Jets wrapping up their busiest stretch of the NHL season after the organization completed a blockbuster deal involving a guy who was viewed as a franchise cornerstone, this rollercoaster evening included a stirring rally to take the lead late in the third period but concluded with a buzzer-beater from Leon Draisaitl.
Just like that, the Jets were left to deal with a hard-luck loss as the Oilers snatched victory from the arms of defeat. Oilers 4, Jets 3.
Even earning a single point and getting the game to overtime probably would have been palatable, given that this was the Jets’ fifth game in seven days. Ending up with nothing left a hollow feeling for a group that had won three consecutive games against the Ottawa Senators after a lacklustre showing against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“There’s no excuses,” said Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored in the third period and has four goals during the past four games. “We were behind and we battled our way back and didn’t end up getting the two points. The way we played today, we deserved at least a point. That sucks, but we’ve got a game in two days and we want to get those two points so we’re gonna look forward now.”
Considering the Jets didn’t play with the lead for a single minute until the fourth game of the season, it stands to reason that slamming the door remains a work in progress.
Losing leads is something that is going to happen over the course of a season. That doesn’t take away the sting.
Nor does it take away the importance of closing out games — especially against teams that are quickly approaching in the rearview mirror.
A topsy-turvy third period saw the Jets erase a 2-1 deficit with goals from Ehlers and Blake Wheeler to take the lead with just under five minutes to play.
That ability to rally under tough circumstances is what Jets head coach Paul Maurice is going to focus in on.
Blowing a late lead doesn’t erase the resilience shown, though it’s a reminder of how difficult it is to win — especially when two of the most talented players in the NHL raise their respective level with the game on the line.
“The real positive for the game is our third (period). To come out and find that in the tank, I was really impressed with that,” said Maurice. “So, it’s a brutal way to end the game, for sure. But I will be left with how hard they pushed in the third. I’m really, really pleased with those guys finding that gear. That was just about character in the third and it’s a tough lesson, the way it ended, but I’m really, really proud of them.”
If come-from-behind wins (like the one the Jets had in the season opener or last Tuesday against the Senators, when 3-1 deficits turned into overtime wins) are something that teams use as a springboard for future success, is there any concern about lingering residue when a team suffers a heartbreaking loss?
“You always deal with the hockey part of it. That’s always the easiest part in the NHL, dealing with that,” said Maurice. “We’ll look at this next game with a real strong focus, not real happy with the way it ended and feeling that we could have been in better control of our destiny at times.
“We did an awful lot of good things, but there’s also going to be a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light at the end of the tunnel for the Jets will be closing out this stretch of six games in nine days on Tuesday.
But head coach Dave Tippett of the Edmonton Oilers opted for the nuclear option, tapped Connor McDavid on the shoulder and asked him to go out on the ice with Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto. Folks have seen this movie before and thanks to a strong offensive-zone shift, McDavid was able to thread the needle to Yamamoto for the tying goal.
Then, after the Jets killed off a minor penalty to Dylan DeMelo, Draisaitl found a quiet spot in the slot and ripped home the game-winning goal after taking a pass from McDavid.
Game. Set. Match.
“Yeah, they are good players, and they are going to do damage when given opportunities like that,” said Adam Lowry, who was frustrated by what happened on the game-winner. “So, I think I just get caught on the back-side there and vacate the slot as I’m worried about Nugent-Hopkins, and it goes right to the guy in the middle and he buries it. It’s unfortunate.”
Although the Jets did a great job of neutralizing McDavid and Draisaitl for a good chunk of the game, the late offensive eruption is precisely why the Jets went out and made the blockbuster move for Pierre-Luc Dubois, to give them another two-way weapon down the middle in the matchup game.
One of the most important decisions in this contest came late in the first period on a coach’s challenge by Tippett.
The Jets thought they had taken a 2-0 lead on a goal from Andrew Copp. After Mikko Koskinen stopped a shot from Ehlers, the puck was loose and Copp got a piece of it — but he also caught the glove of the Oilers goalie with his stick.
Although the puck appeared to already be behind Koskinen, the referees disallowed the goal because of the contact that was made.
“It’s a goal,” said Maurice. “For me, I think the puck is past his glove. I’m not even sure that there’s contact there. They felt it was close, so there’s no argument.”
Jets centre Lowry didn’t feel like the group sagged after the goal was disallowed.
“Sometimes those, I just feel like you flip a coin and see how it comes out,” said Lowry, who scored his third goal of the season. “I don’t see a whole lot on that, I feel like we’ve had ones where there’s more contact against us… They must have seen something that stopped Koskinen’s ability to make the save, so they make that ruling and we just have to regroup from there. I don’t see that we let that affect us negatively, it’s unfortunate though because (Copp) had a heck of a first period and really deserved that one.”
Tippett wasn’t sure it was goalie interference, but figured the challenge was worth the risk even if it didn’t work out, given how his team was playing.
“I was so frustrated with the way we were playing, I was going to (challenge) it anyhow,” said Tippett.
Instead of being down by a pair of goals and scrambling, the Oilers steadied themselves and then came out stronger in the second period, getting a rebound goal from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins just 21 seconds in.
Jesse Puljujarvi made the most of his promotion to the top line alongside McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins. Aside from his strong net drive and primary assist on the goal from Nugent-Hopkins, Pulujarvi was around the puck, generating scoring chances and engaged physically.
That’s the template for Puljujarvi to remain in that spot — or to get more future looks.
A lack of secondary scoring had been a major storyline for the Oilers in the early stage of the season, but Kyle Turris put a dent in that well-deserved narrative with a well-placed shot over the glove of Jets backup Laurent Brossoit.
By the time the buzzer sounded on the second period, the Oilers had outshot the Jets 19-6 in the frame, outscored them 2-0, and had barely given up any scoring chances. The Oilers were fresh, while the Jets looked like a team that was playing for the fifth time in seven nights.
Just when you thought the Oilers had taken full control, the Jets scored twice in the third to pull ahead by a goal.
Instead of rolling over, the Oilers found a way to rally and they’ve now won two of the past three games going into Tuesday’s rematch.