EDMONTON — The Calgary Flames had big nights from their best players. The severely shorthanded Winnipeg Jets did not, at least from the ones who weren’t hobbling around the hockey hub in Edmonton and still healthy enough to tie their own skates and suit up Tuesday night.
That, in a nutshell, is why one club is on the verge of moving on and the other is on the brink of elimination.
Connor Hellebuyck had a stinker of a night in net, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler couldn’t get anything going offensively and a Jets team already missing injured stars Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine was outclassed in a 6-2 loss to the Flames, who took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five qualifying series.
"I’ve got to use this and I plan on using this. This was an upset for me. I don’t see it being easy for them at all for the rest of the series. So they better scratch and claw for everything that they get," a defiant Hellebuyck said in his post-game interview at Rogers Place. The Vezina Trophy finalist was beaten five times on 31 shots.
Calgary’s top five offensive weapons — Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau — all scored, while Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp replied for Winnipeg. Wheeler and Connor have just one assist each through three games.
"There’s no question that Kyle and I carry the offensive burden and it’s a part of our job to produce, especially in these situations. There’s no sidestepping that, that’s what we’re out here to do," Wheeler said following the game.
"There’s a lot more to the game than just that. Everything else is right there. We’re making the next play here or there from having everything that we want. It’s not something that I’m worrying about. We’re talking about guys that are predominantly point-a-game players, both the last few seasons and the last few post-seasons. There’s no panic. There’s no worry. If we’re worried about offence, that’s a good thing. Because that’s the last thing we should be worrying about," said Wheeler.
The captain does have a point, as the biggest concern right now should be Winnipeg’s woeful special teams. Calgary scored three power-play goals on Tuesday and is now 5-for-14 in the series, while Winnipeg is 2-for-15 with the extra man, along with giving up a short-handed goal.
"If you’re giving up three on your PK, you’re not winning those games. There would not be a lot of teams that give up three and win the hockey game. That’s priority one," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
The Jets have been a fed a steady diet of adversity all season, including losing Scheifele to a serious lower-body injury in the opening minutes of Saturday’s 4-1 loss following a controversial hit from Tkachuk. Laine exited the game in the third with an upper-body injury and hasn’t played since, and depth forward Mason Appleton was also banged up.
Winnipeg responded with a gutsy 3-2 victory on Monday afternoon to even the series, but now must win two straight games to keep their season going, beginning with Game 4 Thursday. And they may be even thinner up front, as forward Mathieu Perreault was knocked out of Tuesday’s game after being crushed by Sam Bennett into the boards.
That’s 33 per cent of their Game 1 forwards sidelined with injuries, leaving them with only 19-year-old rookie David Gustafsson and veteran Mark Letestu as the remaining healthy options on the roster.
"We’re not coming to the rink for Game 4 with a feeling that we’ve let something slip away. From the first five minutes of that game we’ve been fighting and trying. It hasn’t been easy for us, we’re not moving the puck the way we’d like to, for sure. But if there’s one thing I have confidence in, I think the compete is going to be as good as we’ve got. What they leave on the ice in Game 4 will be all they have," said Maurice.
The Jets were considered the home team for Game 3, and that meant several familiar sights and sounds from Bell MTS Place were present. Winnipeg wore their blue jerseys, they warmed up to their traditional pregame music playlist, their usual intro video was played before the prerecorded voice of PA announcer Jay Richardson introduced them, and singer Stacey Nattrass belted out a recorded version of O Canada, complete with an included True North shout.
All that was missing were 15,000 cheering fans wearing white, although they wouldn’t have had a lot to get excited about in this one.
Ehlers got the Jets off to a good start when he took a long-distance pass from defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and beat Calgary goalie Cam Talbot on the breakaway for his second career playoff goal, and second in as many days, at 10:04 of the first period. But a tripping penalty by Perreault just nine seconds later led to Lindholm tipping in a shot nine seconds into the subsequent power play. And it was all downhill from there.
Hellebuyck and defenceman Neal Pionk had a malfunction at the junction behind the Jets net, with Andrew Mangiapane stealing the puck and feeding Backlund, who buried it as Hellebuyck awkwardly tried to get back into the net, his back turned to the play, at 5:37 of the second period.
"I think the puck just bounced off the back of my heel. There was good communication and I made a mistake. And I paid for it," said Hellebuyck.
Monahan struck on the power play at 7:49, this time with Jansen Harkins in the box, to take control of the game. Copp brought the Jets back within one at 8:09 when he scored his second of the series on a nifty backhand, but Tkachuk made it 4-2 at 12:48 after being left wide open in front of Hellebuyck and beating him upstairs following a pass from Mangiapane.
Lucic rubbed some salt in the wounds at 8:28 of the third period, once again on the power play, while Gaudreau added an empty-netter with just over two minutes left.
"I think still 5-on-5 it’s right there. We made just a couple of mistakes that led to easy goals for them. But their power play has been good, there’s no doubt about that so I think for us, especially in the situation that we’re in, we’ve got to be disciplined, we’ve got to stay out of the box," said Wheeler.
"It’s not insurmountable. We’re in the same situation we were in a couple of days ago. We just need to win one hockey game, that’s it."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.