There will be no more whiteouts in Winnipeg until next year, or fall at the earliest. The city will leave the joy and the chaos that has accompanied its first Stanley Cup run and revert to the same modest place it has always been.
The Jets played hard but were eliminated from the Western Conference final by the Golden Knights in five relatively easy games. In its first year, Vegas will play for a trophy that a dozen much more established teams have never won.
They have won 12 of their first 15 postseason games en route to a berth in the Stanley Cup championship series against either Tampa Bay or Washington. The Lightning leads that series 3 to 2, with Game 6 in Washington on Monday.
Winnipeg’s greatest hockey season ground to a halt because of one player. If it wasn’t for the Vegas goalie, Marc-André Fleury, the Jets may well have won. Fleury was a part of three teams in Pittsburgh that won the Stanley Cup, but he has never played better than he is now.
He had 31 saves in Sunday’s 2-1 victory and stopped 98 of 103 shots over the past three games. He was the first player the Golden Knights chose in the expansion draft when the Penguins decided to keep Matt Murray. Pittsburgh was knocked out in the second round.
“I felt coming in to the series that we were the best team, but [Vegas] played very well,” Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg’s captain, said in a dressing room that was library-quiet. “Their goaltender was extremely good. Numerous times it looked like the puck was going in for us, but he stopped it.
“He was playing like Tarzan.”
A series that looked promising after a Game 1 Winnipeg victory went off the rails. The Jets had too many turnovers, and the Golden Knights were opportunistic. Their first goal in Game 5 was scored when Josh Morrissey, a Winnipeg defenceman, coughed it up in his own end. Alex Tuch converted the mistake into a 1-0 lead 5:11 into the game.
Winnipeg tied it when Morrissey atoned for his error with a blistering shot that eluded Fleury late in the first period, but it never led. Ryan Reaves, a big forward who grew up in Winnipeg, got the game winner when he tipped a shot by Lucas Sbisa over Connor Hellebuyck’s right shoulder with 6:38 left in the second period.
Hellebuyck played well, as he did for most of the series, but Fleury was simply better. Even as it generated more chances, Winnipeg led for barely 22 minutes over the past four games. The Jets lost each of them, the past two times by one goal.
“I still think we were doing things right,” said Hellebuyck, one of the three candidates for the Vézina Trophy. “I think luck was on their side, definitely.”
Vegas had the good fortune to stock its roster with better players than any other team in modern expansion thanks to a favourable parameters set up by the NHL. But luck didn’t allow the Golden Knights to sweep Los Angeles in four games or do away with San Jose in six. It would be a mistake to underestimate how good they are after they dispatched the Jets. Winnipeg beat Nashville, the league’s best team during the regular season, in the second round in seven games.
“When you add it all up, they are real good,” said Paul Maurice, the Jets coach. “The will to compete was there for us. We were grinding as hard as we could and had fuel in the tank. You have to give credit to the other team.”
The Jets gave up the first goal, and early, for the fourth successive game. They lost four in a row to Vegas after never losing three in a row during regulation all season. Even when the Jets clawed back in games, Vegas did not back down.
Winnipeg generated only two shots in the first eight minutes but held a 12-7 advantage at the end of the first period. Each team ended up with 32 by the end. The outcome was all about Fleury, who was superb. He won four one-goal games against the Kings in the first round and two, the past two, against the Jets.
“It is frustrating when you can’t score a goal in a low-scoring game like this,” said Patrik Laine, Winnipeg’s lithe forward with a booming shot. “It is frustrating for me not to score to help the team win.”
The Jets put together their best season in history with 52 victories and 114 points. It is only their second time in the postseason since the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011. A previous NHL team in Winnipeg never got past the second round in 16 years.
He (Marc-André Fleury) was playing like Tarzan— Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg’s captain
“You invest a lot in a season,” Maurice said. “It starts in the summer. It is very difficult to feel positive right now.
“You start at Ground Zero next season like everyone else. There is no guarantee from one year to the next. Nothing is permanent. We have to go back and get stronger and be more mature in our game so we can prepare ourselves for this event again.”
The Jets’ raucous fans became became very quiet in the third period as Vegas stifled every chance. They stood and cheered at the end as the players kneeled on the ice and leaned heavily against their sticks.
One final rush in the dying seconds ended with a pass just out of Mark Scheifele’s reach.
“It was a matter of inches,” Scheifele said.
The Golden Knights were preaching teamwork afterward. Fleury was self-deprecating and Deryk Engelland, a defenceman left exposed by Calgary in the expansion draft, said the team won it for their city. A gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas on Oct. 1.
There are platitudes that can be spoken about the Jets and the exciting run they have had. It will be a while before solace can be found in that.
Mark Chipman, the chairman of the group that owns the club, stared at the floor in silence as he rode in an elevator following the game.
Jets fans have been enraptured, and the downtown streets have been taken over by a giant white tornado.
But it is over now.
“I feel pretty empty,” Wheeler said. “Emotionless.”