Patrik Laine confessed he had “no idea what to expect.”
How could he? The teenage superstar of the Winnipeg Jets – 44 goals in the regular season – is only in his second year with the NHL club.
Last year, the Jets, as usual, missed the postseason entirely.
In fact, since relocating here in 2011 – they were previously the Atlanta Thrashers – they have only played once in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They have not only never won a series, they have never won a game.
All that changed on Wednesday night when the Jets came from behind to claim a 3-2 victory on a late goal from journeyman defenceman Joe Morrow.
In that 2015 faceplant, the Jets were swept four straight by the Anaheim Ducks.
This night they began their second-ever postseason play, up against the same coach, Bruce Boudreau, who led the Ducks to such an easy sweep. This time Boudreau would be coming to Bell MTS Place as coach of the Minnesota Wild.
That would be the same Wild that has now reached the postseason six straight years.
You would expect that would mean something.
And yet, the Jets entered the game the prohibitive favourites, tagged by every expert with a byline or a blog to win the series and move on, for the very first time, to a second round.
“You’d have to be blind not to see it,” Boudreau said of the predictions, “especially with Canadian TV everywhere.”
Boudreau could not resist a touch of sarcasm: “We’re glad we’re invited to play, so we’ll give it our best shot.”
The Wild would do so, however, without one of the league’s top defencemen, Ryan Suter, out for the season with a broken right ankle.
“He’s the type of guy you’re going to miss,” conceded Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice, “but that doesn’t necessarily have an effect on the team game.”
Maurice’s Jets came out, as team captain Blake Wheeler said they would, “fast,” outshooting the Wild 13-4 in the opening period. And yet the Wild defence, even without Suter, was impenetrable. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk mostly dealt with harmless long shots.
If the young Finn, Laine, seemed rather absent in the early going it may well have been because he was in shock. The Winnipeg fans, almost exclusively dressed in “Whiteout” clothing, face paint and fright wigs, belted out the anthem with gusto, saving the loudest explosion for the words “TRUE NORTH!” in honour of the group that brought the NHL back to town.
Boudreau said he was grateful to have coached the Ducks during Winnipeg’s only other playoff, as it allowed him to “prepare” for the often-overwhelming enthusiasm of Winnipeg fans.
That excitement began to wane somewhat in the second period as the Wild began attacking. However, the Wild forwards could not solve Connor Hellebuyck, the young (24) goaltender who was so pivotal in the Jets best regular season ever.
Winnipeg had its best chance late in the second when rookie Kyle Connor found himself all alone in the slot for a wrist shot. Dubnyk, however, easily grabbed the shot with a quick glove hand.
The Jets finally struck late in the period when, on their second power play of the night, Wheeler found Mark Scheifele in the slot with a pass from the right boards and Scheifele ripped a hard wrist shot into the Wild net.
Early in the third period, the Wild tied it up when 40-year-old Matt Cullen snapped a quick shot off a pass from Jordan Greenway, cleanly beating Hellebuyck.
The Wild then struck quickly again when the Jets allowed a two-on-one break and Mikael Granlund perfect set up Zach Parise for a deft tip in on Hellebuyck’s blocker side.
Very quickly, Winnipeg tied the game at 2-2 when, finally, the teen Laine had a clear shot off a Paul Stastny pass and blasted a hard wrist shot over Dubnyk’s glove.
The defensive challenge had suddenly switched to an offensive challenge – more proof that you cannot possibly know what to expect.
Play continued frantically until, with barely seven minutes left, Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers got the puck back to Morrow, whose point shot passed through a screen of players into the Minnesota Net.
Despite pulling their goaltender for the extra man in the dying minutes, the Wild could not force overtime.
The Winnipeg Jets finally had their first playoff victory.
Could luck have played any role in this?
For the superstitious, and hockey is filled with players and coaches with superstitious tics, a situation following the morning skate had more than a few scratching their head.
The Jets wanted a special talisman to bring them luck. Centre Matt Hendricks had an idea and the rest of the team immediately bought into it. They came up with a sign and logo that read “Drivers wanted” above an illustration of a their Jets logo fronted by the grim reaper.
“Death from above,” were the words below.
The saying was stamped on dressing room doors and the equipment handlers wore T-shirts with it on the back.
Hendricks was asked to explain it and he began humorously right up until one of the reporters happened to ask if this symbol and saying was “appropriate,” given the tragic truck-bus accident in nearby Saskatchewan five days earlier that killed 15 of the junior-level Humboldt Broncos, with a 16th victim, athletic therapist Dayna Brons dying just hours before Game 1.
Hendricks seemed genuinely stunned by the question. “Drivers,” he explained, are what the team asks of each other in practice, pushing each of them to step up that day and show some leadership.
“Since we’re Jets,” he continued, “’Death from Above.’”
Flustered, Hendricks distanced himself from any connection with the tragedy and offered a mumbled apology before saying “I guess you guys are probably making more of it than it is.” Then he bolted.
When Maurice was asked in his morning press conference, the coach coldly responded: “You have clearly misinterpreted the message.”
That is surely true, and it was clear Hendricks wanted no such line drawn, but you have to wonder why no one else questioned the unfortunate images and words.
As Wild goaltender Dubnyk put it prior to the game, playoff time is when “Things that everybody talks about are magnified.”
One certain expectation for young Mr. Laine is that this series is going to be one to remember.
The Canadian Press