They said hell would have to freeze over before the Winnipeg Jets would have a chance against the Edmonton Oilers.
Well, Edmonton froze over – rain, hail and five centimetres of snow fell the previous evening – and Wednesday night at Rogers Place the Jets did what few predicted when they squeaked out a 4-1 victory over the Oilers in the opening match of their first-round Stanley Cup playoffs.
It was certainly not a game the experts had widely predicted. The stars were dim; the journeymen shone.
The winning goal came halfway through the third period when Logan Stanley, a surprise roster insert for the Jets, blasted a shot from the point that bounced off the post, bounced off the camera and bounced back into play, which continued for several seconds before video review signaled the officials to blow the whistle. Dominic Toninato, another late addition to the roster, tipped Stanley’s point blast. Toninato had no goals and one assist in the regular season.
Stanley himself seemed to have no idea they had scored. The 6′7″ giant had but one goal and three assists in spotty play for the Jets over this strange 2021 season.
Playing in front of about a dozen invited front-line workers, the Oilers and Jets launched a first period that seemed completely out of sorts with the high-scoring reputations of both sides.
The game was settled in the dying minutes when Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler scored into the empty Edmonton net.
“Things happen first the first game, the first few shifts,” Winnipeg captain Wheeler had said in the morning.
It was fast, if often clumsy, and more high energy and physical than finesse. Shots were as rare as early-morning snowplows on the backstreets.
Winnipeg had but one shot after the opening five minutes, Edmonton none, and the Oilers did not get a puck on net until the 8:25 mark. The first period ended with only six shots for each side.
That said, both Jets goaltender Connor Helleybuyck, celebrating his 28th birthday, and 39-year-old Edmonton goalie Mike Smith were superb on the few good chances to score.
This opening match of the series took place on the 37th anniversary of the Oilers first Stanley Cup victory, when they defeated the New York Islanders to begin their own dynasty.
Edmonton fans have grown anxious to see a return to such glory when they have, in their prime, the league’s most valuable player this year, Connor McDavid, and the MVP of last season, Leon Draisaitl.
Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett put his two superstars on the same line by the end of the opening period, but to no avail, and continuing mixing McDavid with others for much of the game. The Jets – especially defenceman Neal Pionk – were as annoying to McDavid as blackflies at a Winnipeg area camp. The strategy to hound the Edmonton stars but avoid the penalty box was effective.
“You’re going in against the No. 1 power play, so we want to stay out of the penalty box,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice earlier in the day. “We don’t want this to become a special-teams game...there’s a chance that’s the deciding factor in this series.”
Maurice won his 300th game as Winnipeg’s head coach earlier this month. This series may well decide his future, as late in the season his two most important players, leading scorer Mark Scheifele and goaltender Hellebuyck, openly disagreed with Maurice’s decisions to bench Scheifele in one game and yank Hellebuyck in another.
Maurice’s Jets were playing without Nikolaj Ehlers, perhaps their best two-way forward, and Pierre-Luc Dubois, the young forward who came to the Jets from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the trade for Patrik Laine. Ehlers was terribly missed; Dubois not so much, as his eight-goal regular season output was a huge disappointment.
Much was made of the Jets coming up against the scoring juggernaut that is 2021 Oilers, but the Jets have little to fear of road games. Outside their run to the conference finals in 2017-18, they came into this game 3-11 in Stanley Cup playoff games, with all three wins coming on the road. This season the Jets went 17-10-1 on the road, tied for seventh best in the league.
Both teams were counting on their captains for scoring set-ups. Since the 2015-16 season, Wheeler and McDavid have been two of the NHL’s most prolific productive passers. McDavid leads the NHL in assists since then with 379, while Wheeler is tied for third with 313.
It was near the middle of the second period that the Oilers, who had been badly outplaying the Jets, finally got on the scoreboard. Winnipeg defenceman Dylan DeMelo lost the puck in his own end, leading to a goal by Jesse Puljujarvi on a goalmouth scramble.
Less than three minutes later, the Jets tied the game at 1-1. Wheeler led a rush over the Edmonton blueline, took a long shot and defenceman Tucker Poolman, who hadn’t scored once in the regular season, was there to finish off the rebound by driving hard to Smith’s net.
The unheralded defenceman’s goal was an oddity for the Jets this season, as the team’s forwards had scored 94.1 percent of the team’s goals – the most of any team in the NHL.
Then it happened again with Stanley’s tipped point shot that no one on the ice saw go in, but technology did.
Suddenly, the Winnipeg Jets defence were carrying the team.
How appropriate for what continues to be a hockey season like no other in memory.
Perhaps in future games, the stars everyone said would shine will come out. But this was a night for the unknown, the unheralded … and the much celebrated today in Winnipeg.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Jets' 2017-18 playoff run.