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The Jets Ripped Up The Script

Winnipeg Jets players salute the fans after their win
Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

The Jets-Avalanche series was almost too easy to plot. In Winnipeg, you had a mediocre scoring team and hockey's best at preventing goals, led by another brilliant year from Connor Hellebuyck in net. In Denver, you had a squad without much defensive certainty but with a dangerously flammable offense, anchored by a career-best 51-goal season from Nathan MacKinnon. Whichever team could bend the game to their strengths, you'd assume, would be the winners. The Avalanche would crack under the pressure of a goalie duel; the Jets would run out of gas in a high-scoring sprint.

Of course, that's not at all what happened in Game 1 on Sunday. For the first time all season, Hellebuyck let six goals by him. But for only the second time all season—after, coincidentally(?), another meeting with the Avalanche not even two weeks ago—the Jets scored seven. Seven being more than six, Winnipeg survived the pinball machine to emerge with a lead in the series.

“What a hockey game, huh? We were riding the same roller coaster like everyone else there,” Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon said afterward. “I guess we proved we can score goals, too, but man oh man, that’s not us.”

The first period of this game was just one long unpredictable run-on sentence where Val Nichushkin scored and then Josh Morrissey scored and then Vlad Namestnikov scored and then Miles Wood scored and then MacKinnon got a goal and then finally Mark Scheifele tied it up again so that the score was 3-3 heading into intermission. The second period served as a breather, with only "Big" Adam Lowry hitting paydirt on an especially ungraceful rush off a turnover. Then in the final period, though the Avs would make it tight at the very end, the Jets further asserted their attacking prowess with three goals in the first nine minutes, including this incredible stroke of luck on another shot by Lowry, where the puck just barely spun over the line as it traveled from post to post and back again. Thanks to Casey Mittelstadt's goal for Colorado with 30 seconds remaining, this fun lesson in physics made the difference between a win and OT.

With a franchise that hasn't achieved any real playoff success outside of a 2018 stab at contention, it's surprising how much this victory owed to the Winnipeg lifers, who accounted for all but one of the Sunday septet. Morrissey was drafted by the team in 2013, Scheifele and Lowry in 2011, and Kyle Connor, who scored six and seven, was picked in 2015. But out of the men who've passed through Manitoba since the NHL returned, nobody has carried the province's hopes like Hellebuyck, who's started a league-high 496 games since debuting nine years ago and has turned in his two best seasons yet.

Last year, Hellebuyck faltered in the first round against the Golden Knights, and despite a shocking Game 1 win the team was shrugged aside in five. His six goals allowed Sunday against Colorado, while partially the fault of some flaky defense and the sheer volume of 46 shots, is not a recipe for success. To win consistently in the postseason, a team needs its best player to perform not just to expectations but beyond them. In this particular game, the Jets were bailed out by Avalanche goalie Alexandar Georgiev and the success of their shooters. But three more wins in this vein do not seem likely. Very soon, Connor will need to step up and take command. That's why they pay him the big buycks.

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