Not unexpectedly, the Winnipeg Jets 2019-20 National Hockey League season ended in a bubble in Edmonton on Thursday night.
Playing without two of its top four scorers and its power-play goal scoring leader, the Jets demonstrated very little offence, losing 4-0 to the Calgary Flames as Winnipeg fell three-games-to-one in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifying Series.
It was a sad, difficult way to end one of the most bizarre seasons in the team’s history.
In a year that started with Dustin Byfuglien declaring right before training camp that he didn’t want to play anymore, the Jets played hard, got great goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck and stayed among the playoff contenders. Then, after the season was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, they found they had earned a spot in the August-return, a Qualifying Series inside a quarantine bubble in Edmonton.
However, they went into their series with Calgary without skilled centre Bryan Little, who was still nursing a serious head injury. To make things worse, they lost power play leader Mark Scheifele and high-scoring Patrik Laine in the first game of the series. With a potential 80-goal duo out of the lineup, the Jets were essentially down to two NHL lines. They had already lost two more members of their highly-regarded defensive corps (Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot) while Byfuglien was deciding his future and by the time they were in the middle of the play-in event, they were a diminished team.
The shutout loss on Thursday was inevitable despite the fact they had more than half a dozen glorious scoring opportunities, won 53 per cent of the face-offs and even outhit the Flames 37-30.
“I’ve never had a season like this where you’d faced so adversity and not quit, right?” said Jets coach Paul Maurice during the post-game press session. “That’s how you should value yourself, how hard you compete in dire circumstances and we just had a year of it. So the feeling we have now is completed emptiness. The payoff is nothing.”
On Thursday night, Calgary opened the scoring at 3:21 of the first period when Dillon Dube beat Hellebuyck in close. Then came the dagger. Although the Jets had played hard in the opening period and even created a few scoring chances for themselves, the Flames got a goal on a jam-shot in the crease by Sam Bennett at the 19:59 mark. In fact, there only 0.3 seconds on the clock when the puck hit the back of the net.
Despite the fact they had a few terrific chances in the second period, the Jets couldn’t solve Calgary goaltender Cam Talbot (or could they actually hit the net on a number of the shots) and although they played their best second period of the series — up until Thursday, they had been outscored 8-2 in second periods — they were still down 2-0.
Again, they had more chances to score in the third, but couldn’t beat Talbot and so Maurice pulled goaltender Hellebuyck for a sixth attacker with four minutes to play. However, Sean Monahan scored into the empty net at 16:59 and Rasmus Andersson scored another empty netter at 17:18 and that was the series.
“I would say that I’m proud and very disappointed that we couldn’t catch a break,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “I’m not saying this series gets flipped on its head by having Mark and Patty — you’ve got to give Calgary a lot of credit — but I would have loved to have played a series with those two guys and seen how that would have shaken out. Put our best foot forward and from there you never know what could have happened.”
Indeed, we will never know.
Calgary will move on to play Colorado, Vegas, St. Louis or Dallas in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Meanwhile, the Jets will have a 12.5 per cent chance of getting the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft in the second phase of the NHL Draft Lottery on Monday.