One was ready to go. The other wasn’t ready at all.
On the night when True North Sports and Entertainment agreed to honour 500 local healthcare workers with tickets to the biggest show in town, the Winnipeg Jets came out of the gates as if they were skating in sand. Meanwhile, the Montreal Canadiens were flying from the opening face-off.
As a result, the Habs jumped off to a quick 2-0 lead and then hung on to beat the Jets 5-3 in the opening game of the best-of-seven North Division final at Bell MTS Place. The win was Montreal’s fourth straight and the loss snapped the Jets six-game winning streak.
But the win didn’t come without a cost as Jake Evans was taken from the ice on a stretcher with less that a minute to play after being on the receiving end of a monstrous bodycheck from the Jets Mark Scheifele.
“I just hope he’s okay,” Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler said post-game. “I mean, that’s it. Really, that’s all. That’s the concern. It’s never good to see a guy on the ice for that amount of time and the stretcher out is scary. So we’re just hoping that he’s okay.”
The Jets started the game without star forward Paul Stastny and then lost defenseman Dylan DeMelo when he tried to check Montreal’s Brendan Gallegher on his first shift of the game. It was described as a “lower-body injury,” but according to the Jets, injuries weren’t the reason for the lack of success.
“You never want to see a teammate go out with an injury,” goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said of DeMelo. “The flow of the game, I’m not sure how it affected it because I thought we played a pretty good game. The guys were fighting hard and they were giving it their all and that’s all you can really ask for. Give it your all and continue to get better every shift.”
It didn’t take long for the Canadiens to jump on the undermanned Jets, as Jesperi Kotkaniemi deflected a shot from the point by Jeff Petry past Jets net minder Connor Hellebuyck at 3:29. Erik Gustafsson also drew an assist as the Habs scored on their second shot on goal. At this stage the Jets looked slow and quite sluggish from their nine-day layoff between series.
At 5:10, the Habs went up 2-0 as Eric Staal took a pass from Corey Perry alone in front and beat Hellebuyck easily. It was the Canadiens fifth shot on goal and by now the Jets appeared flat-footed and barely awake. Brandon’s Joel Edmundson also drew an assist as the Habs were completely dominating.
“I think they’re coming off a lot of energy and a hard-fought series,” Hellebuyck added. “They have found their identity and they know exactly the game they want to play. I think, going forward here, we’re gonna be the better team and we’re gonna keep getting better and better and better. Definitely looking forward to the next game.”
But that’s when the Jets showed some life. First, they put a load of pressure on Montreal goalie Carey Price during a power play and then, a few minutes later, while a man short, Adam Lowry stole the puck at his own blue line, went in alone on Price and beat the Habs net-minder through the five hole. It was an unassisted, shorthanded goal at 11:52 and suddenly the slow, sluggish, undermanned Jets were back in the hunt.
But the Habs struck quickly before the end of the period. Edmundson hit Nick Suzuki on a beautiful stretch pass and Suzuki went in alone Hellebuyck, made a beautiful deke and beat the Jets goalie from almost behind the net. It gave the Canadiens a 3-1 lead and Montreal was back in charge.
The Canadiens outshot Winnipeg 12-11 in the first period and the Jets had two glorious scoring opportunities spoiled by the brilliance of Carey Price. It just was not Winnipeg’s period and Montreal was 23-1 in their last 24 playoff games when scoring three goals. Things did not look good for Winnipeg.
Not much happened in the second period. The Canadiens had two great chances to score and were robbed both times by the quick glove of Hellebuyck, The Jets had two great chances, as well, but Price stood his ground. Neither team scored and the Jets outshot Montreal 11-9. With 20 minutes left, the Jets required a little urgency.
Early in the third, the Jets had a great opportunity to make it 3-2 as Kyle Connor picked up a loose puck in front of the Montreal net and drilled a shot to the top corner. However, Price caught a piece of the puck with his glove and it deflected harmlessly over the net.
Then, at the 9:22 mark, Mathieu Perreault hustled to win a battle for the puck in the Montreal zone and got the biscuit to Pierre-Luc Dubois. Dubois fed a perfect pass to Derek Forbert and the big Jets D-man ripped a high, blistering shot to the top corner. Suddenly, the Jets were within a goal.
However, with the benefit of a power play, the Canadiens regained their two goal lead. Shea Weber was sprung on a breakaway as the Jets defence, amazingly, got caught up the ice. Weber went in alone from the Jets blue line and was beaten by Hellebuyck, but as the Jets stood around and watched, Brendan Gallagher banged home the rebound and Montreal was up 4-2. Weber and Petry, the man who made the original pass to set up Weber’s breakaway, drew the assists. With nine minutes to play, the Jets were up against the wall again.
Late in the period, after a scrum in front of the Montreal net, Mark Scheifele was handed a penalty for taking Ben Chiarot’s glove to the face, but the Jets fought this one off. Still, Scheifele was frustrated with the officiating and made his feelings known, quite loudly, from the penalty box.
Winnipeg made it close with six attackers late in the period. With 1:42 left on the clock, Nikolaj Ehlers hit Kyle Connor with a perfect pass and Connor had a wide open net to make it 4-3.
The scoring ended when the Canadiens got an empty netter from Jake Evans at 19:02, but just as Evans went behind the Jets goal and stuffed the puck into the open Winnipeg net, he took a thunderous hit from Mark Scheifele, a hit that left Evans crumpled in a heap on the ice.
“Well obviously I hope he’s okay,” Ehlers said of his protective actions towards Evans following the hit that left him unconscious on the ice. “I came back and saw that he wasn’t looking good. When something like that happens there tends to be a scrum. So I was just trying to keep everyone away from him. In a situation like that, you don’t want anyone falling on top of him. I was just trying to keep everyone away.”
Scheifele was handed a five-minute major for charging and a game misconduct for one of the most brutal bodychecks we’ve witnessed at Bell MTS Place. The Jets finished the game shorthanded and Scheifele will likely be suspended.
“Yeah, it was a dirty hit, but the league’s going to take care of it,” Montreal’s Joel Edmundson said. “If he gets back in the series, we’re going to make his life miserable, but I think the league’s going to do a good job with that.”
His teammate Jesperi Kotkaniemi didn’t mince words either:
“I think it’s disgusting, no respect for the other players out there,” he said. “Just seeing him moving after a thing like that, it’s huge. Even getting the fist bump, you know, it’s great to see that. I’m feeling much easier now just knowing he’s okay.”
In the end Montreal outshot Winnipeg 33-30. The Jets outhit Montreal 42-24.
“I thought they were real good,” Paul Maurice said of the Canadiens. “They looked like they were right in their rhythm. We weren’t as good as we have been. We didn’t come to the rink to play regular-season hockey. We understand, we’re excited about the challenge we have here. We can get better. We know that. They played a hell of a game.”
Game 2 in the series will be played at Bell MTS Place Friday night at 6:30 p.m. CDT. It can be viewed live on Sportsnet and CBC.