It might have been taken as an omen in this city so worried it cannot match last year’s impressive playoff run to the Western Conference final.
The little flag bearer chosen to lead the Winnipeg Jets out for Game 1 of their opening series against the St. Louis Blues stepped out onto the fresh ice, slipped and fell flat on his face.
Whether it had anything to do with the outcome or not, the game eventually went St. Louis’s way as the Blues pulled off a come-from-behind 2-1 victory to begin the series and send Winnipeggers into two days of worry before playing again here Friday night.
Tyler Bozak scored with just more than two minutes left in regulation when he took a pass behind-the-net pass from Patrick Maroon and fired a quick shot over the shoulder of Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
Patrik Laine, the 20-year-old Finnish sensation who had an “off” year with only 30 goals, had opened the scoring for Winnipeg at the 13:28 mark of the first period when he took a perfect pass in the slot from Bryan Little and snapped a hard wrist shot past the outstretched glove of St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington.
St. Louis head coach Craig Berube had to flinch on that one. After taking over the coaching reins from fired Mike Yeo in the fall, Berube’s first meeting with the then-surging Jets saw Laine score five times in an 8-4 rout of the Blues.
Berube, whose own team surged in the final weeks of the season to reach the playoffs, wanted his team to be ready for the noise and excitement of the loudest rink in hockey. “They start fast here,” he said. “We know that.
“Coming in here, the first game and the first 10 minutes, it’s a lot, it’s a lot of emotion going on, so it’s important that our guys get focused and try to quiet the crowd as quickly as possible.”
It was not to be. The NHL’s loudest rink stayed true to its reputation.
But the Blues did have a superb chance to do just that when, 34 seconds into this opening game of a best-of-seven series, Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele crashed into Binnington while circling the St. Louis net. Scheifele was called for interference; fans felt Binnington should have been called for diving, and from that point on was loudly booed every time he touched the puck.
With Winnipeg shorthanded, however, the Blues could not even manage a shot on the Winnipeg net until Scheifele was stepping back onto the ice.
By the third period, the Blues were back on their game.
Both teams seemed tentative to start this series. Pucks were bobbled, checks missed, passes out of reach. Apart from Laine’s goal, the teams were evenly matched through the first and a goalless second period.
That was no surprise in that the Blues and Jets ended the regular season with exactly the same total, 99 points, though one (Winnipeg) started strong and the other (St. Louis) finished strong. An inventive Twitter account put out Wednesday that both cities were founded by French fur traders, both have muddy rivers, both opened zoos the same year, and both are known as the “Gateway to the West.”
Cute, but there can be no ties in Stanley Cup playoff hockey.
However, early in the second period, it appeared the Blues were going to tie the game when slick Vladimir Taresenko flew up the ice and had a clear breakaway when it appeared his shot might leak through Hellebuyck’s pads and into the net, only to have big defenceman Dustin Byfuglien cuff the dribbling puck away before it could cross the line.
The best scoring chance of the period came on a shorthanded rush by the Jets while killing off a penalty to Mathieu Perreault. Jets centre Par Lindholm came down fast on the right side, took a pass and fired a hard shot that Binnington snared with a fast glove hand.
Byfuglien nearly scored on a hard point shot during a Jets power play, only to have the puck ring off the left post.
Byfuglien, who missed games recently with an ankle injury, played a very strong game, as did defenceman Josh Morrissey, finally returning to play after missing weeks with an upper body injury. Morrissey played a regular shift and was impressive.
Laine hit the St. Louis post early in the third period when, again, he fired a wrist shot from the right side of the slot.
Finally, the Blues got their chance and scored when David Perron drifted a long shot from the blue line that somehow eluded Hellebuyck.
With the score 1-1 and the Blues increasingly coming on – “We preach aggressiveness,” Berube said – the game turned very much in St. Louis’s favour.
Bozak had several good chances, finally beating Hellebuyck with a quick shot from the slot.
The Jets pressed in the dying minutes, pulling the goaltender for an extra attacker, but they could not beat the cool rookie.
The first day of this playoff round began with a minor controversy. Binnington, the hero of the Blues’ late-season rise from last place over all to the playoffs, was found to have made some embarrassing social media comments in his past. The native of Richmond Hill, Ont., had cracked about burkas and cab drivers talking in foreign languages five and six years back.
Berube refused to comment on the minor fuss, but was quick to praise Binnington’s poise. “Mentally he’s been real confident,” Berube said. “He’s stayed real even-keel with this whole experience.”
He was certainly “even keel” from Laine’s opening goal on.
“Playoffs are just a battle, right,” Binnington said.” You just got to stay composed.”
Tell that to the Jets fans.