On March 11, in a pre-pandemic world that bears no resemblance to today’s, the Winnipeg Jets captured a 4-2 victory at Rogers Place over the Edmonton Oilers.
143 days later, they took to the Rogers Place ice again for their first meaningful game in nearly five months — the opening matchup of their five-game play-in series against another Albertan opponent in the Calgary Flames.
The game was different — the fans who packed the rink back in March were replaced by tarps and a smattering of photographers — and the result was different as well. Just about everything that could have possibly gone wrong did in a disastrous and embarrassing 4-1 defeat.
1: Jets Have Massive Holes to Fill Already
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Jets lose key players at the most inopportune times.
New world, new playoff format, old problems. The Jets, who dealt with a ton of injury adversity all season long, will have to deal with more as they lost their top-line centre early to what appears to be a long-term injury and their dangerous sniper too.
Just six minutes into the game, Mark Scheifele — the team’s second-highest points-getter with 29 goals and 44 assists during the shortened season — tried to elude Matthew Tkachuk check near the Flames’ blue line and went down in a heap by the boards, with some potential skate-on-skate contact taking place. He didn’t get up, grasping at his left leg in agony.
As Murat Ates noted above, he didn’t put any weight on his foot at all as he left the ice and did not return. Head coach Paul Maurice teed off on Tkachuk after the game, calling it and”intentional… absolutely filthy, disgusting hit” that could have ended the alternate captain’s career.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Patrik Laine was also forced to leave with an apparent wrist injury after a third-period collision with Mark Giordano and also did not return. Maurice, as per new NHL protocol, couldn’t say much about the extent of either player’s injury other than that they’ll both see specialists on Sunday.
There’s no replacing Scheifele or Laine. Regarding Scheifele, Jack Roslovic played top-line centre in his stead in the first before captain Blake Wheeler — who spent most of the season up the middle after Bryan Little suffered a serious head and ear injury in early November— took over in the second. We’ll see who’s given the big-time assignment for Game 2.
2: Jets Will Have to Be Extra Squeaky-Clean
The whistles usually go away come playoff time, but they were sounding off a lot Saturday night, with 11 minors issued overall.
The refereeing crew of Jon McIsaac and Chris Rooney handed out a bunch of marginal, ticky-tack penalties to still-rusty players of both sides throughout the game, with a slashing minor assessed to Nathan Beaulieu the softest of the bunch.
The Jets couldn’t kill off that second-period infraction, as Johnny Gaudreau scored on the Flames’ sixth shot of that third power play — their third — to tie the game 1-1.
The Jets were a fairly disciplined team in 2019-2020 — they took the ninth-fewest number of PIMs with 525 — and it was a good thing too, as their penalty kill operated at just 77.6 per cent efficiency.
They’ll have to mind their Ps and Qs more closely than ever if the trend of overzealous officiating continues.
3: Jets Will Need 60-Minute Efforts and Better Special Teams
Outshot, out-chanced, out-possessed. Not a recipe for success in a short series.
The Jets got off to a fast start, outshooting their opponent 7-1 early. However, they sagged in a big way in the middle frame — due no doubt in part to the Scheifele injury and the line-scrambling it caused — and the relentless Flames took them to task. After 40 minutes, the Flames led 3-1 on the scoreboard and 27-13 on the shot clock.
The nadir of the Jets’ second was an anemic power play in which they gave up a shorthanded breakaway goal to Tobias Rieder. They also allowed a late power play goal to make the period one to truly forget.
The Jets lost both sides of the special teams battle badly Saturday night, giving up two power play markers in addition to the shortie and going zero-for-seven on the man advantage with just four shots.
Overall, their top six will have to show a lot more, and they’ll need to do so in a hurry or else they will be exiting the bubble early.
Bonus Takeaway: A 9:30 P.M. Central Start Time Is LATE
This author is neither a night-owl nor a coffee drinker. By the third period, he was finding it hard to keep his weary eyes open, let alone compose proficient prose about what was happening on the ice.
But really, he can’t complain too much; the hub city format isn’t perfect but it brought live hockey and the chase for the Cup to his television, and that’s worth staying up late for.
Game 2 Coming Soon
The teams won’t have much time to rest up or reflect as they’ll be right back at it Monday afternoon for Game 2. The Flames will look to take a 2-0 series stranglehold, while the Jets will look to knot things at one apiece.
Tying the series up will be a tall order for the Jets — who were soaring before the pandemic pause — but if any squad can do it, it’s this fire-forged team that’s no stranger to overcoming obstacles.