The Winnipeg Jets won the first playoff game in franchise history, scoring two goals in the third period to come back from a 2-1 deficit to beat the Minnesota Wild 3-2 in the opener of the NHL’s Central Division semifinal.
“I’m a bubble player who has bounced around this year,” said Joe Morrow, who scored the winning goal for the Jets. “That was the biggest goal of my career. I don’t know what you want to call it. Having a Cinderella story like the one tonight makes you feel good.”
It was a terrific hockey game, especially for the loud, proud full house at Bell MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg. They came to have a party and while nearly 10,000 celebrated outside the rink, the 16,345 inside the building hit 108.8 dB on the Noise Level Meter, as they willed their Jets to a much more difficult victory than anyone expected.
“It was a good hockey game and we had an opportunity with the lead in the third period and with our goaltender playing very good,” said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. “But you can’t give (Laine) a shot in the middle there. They picked up the pace and when they scored they got the emotion into it and we sagged a bit.”
In the first period, the Wild played a little rope-a-dope. The Jets dominated the period, outshooting the Wild 13-4, but Devan Dubnyk was sharp and the Jets had only a handful of real good scoring chances. The first 20-minute period ended with the score tied 0-0, but by the end of the period, the Wild started to take over the tempo of the game.
In the second period, the Jets finally got on the board Mark Scheifele ripped a one-timer past Dubnyk on the power play at 17:37. Two Minnesotans, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien drew the assists and Winnipeg took a 1-0 advantage into the their period.
But the Wild had been playing much better hockey. The line of Zach Parise, Michael Granlund and Mikko Koivu were given the Jets fits and in the second period, Minnesota outshot Winnipeg 12-8.
What people were quietly expecting came to pass early in the third. Matt Cullen got loose in front of the Jets net and ripped one past Winnipeg netminder Connor Hellebuyck at 1:46 and then Parise, jammed home a pass from Granlund at 3:58 to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead.
But the Jets answered quickly. Patrick Laine took a pass from Paul Stastny in the slot and from 25 feet rifled a bullet under the bar that Dubnyk never did see and suddenly the game was tied 2-2.
Then as the Jets played urgent hockey and the Wild sat back, defenseman Joe Morrow, who had quietly joined the Jets from Montreal at the trade deadline, fired a shot from the point at 12:47 that went off a Wild stick and right between Dubnyk’s legs. Suddenly, the Jets were ahead 3-2 and the crowd was apoplectic.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, pulled Dubnyk with 2:24 to play but because Adam Lowry, who had been the most ferocious checker on the ice all night, won nearly every face-off down the stretch, the Jets held on — allowing only one shot as Minnesota played with six attackers — to win the first playoff game in the history of the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise.
Over 12 seasons in Atlanta, the Thrashers made the playoffs only once — in 2007 — and were swept in four straight games in the opening round of the playoffs by the New York Rangers. In seven years in Winnipeg, this is only the second time the Jets have reached the post-season and in the first shot at the playoffs, back in 2015, they lost four straight games to the Anaheim Ducks.
On Wednesday night, however, the curse was ended as many of the Jets top players, players who weren’t even around in the spring of 2015 — Laine, Stastny, Morrow, Hellebuyck (St. John’s), Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Brandon Tanev, Joel Armia and Kyle Connor — paid absolutely no attention to history.
The Jets outshot Minnesota 40-20 as the Wild’s Devan Dubnyk was the game’s second star. The first star was Lowry even though his name does not appear on the scoresheet. His forechecking, bodychecking and work in the face-off circle were lights out. Winnipeg went one-for-two on the power play while Minnesota was zero-for-one.
Game 2 in this Opening Round series goes Friday night at Bell MTS Place at 6:30 CST. Only one thing is certain: It will be loud.
By Scott Taylor
Photos by Jeff Miller