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There’s Nothing To Do In Winnipeg But Wait

Connor Hellebuyck during the singing of O Canada
Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Here is a goal that demonstrates the attacking superiority of the Colorado Avalanche, NHL leaders in scoring for the regular season. It started with the defense going back and forth with some nothing-special passes to thwart a Winnipeg Jets forecheck, then moving the puck to Nathan MacKinnon in the neutral zone. MacKinnon, given basically a 3-on-3 setup, took advantage of the space to carry possession past the blue line, where he dropped it off for Mikko Rantanen.

At this point, four Jets players are converging on three Avs players all grouped in one half of the offensive zone. But Colorado knew what it was doing. Devon Toews was speeding in as an unmarked reinforcement, and Rantanen led him with a delivery he could catch at speed. In this second, everyone's movement is masterful. Rantanen's pass nullified the two defenders sniffing him out. MacKinnon went to the net and took a man with him. Valeri Nichushkin crossed diagonally from the middle of the zone to the faceoff dot, leaving Dylan Samberg with a choice. He could follow Nichushkin and let Toews roam free, or turn his attention to the guy with the puck. The defenseman zeroed in on Toews and tried to block a lane to MacKinnon, but he got mooted. Toews saw Nichushkin, made the pass without hesitation, and opened up a one-timer for an early 1-1 tie.

And here's a goal that demonstrates just how freaking stupid and annoying hockey can be, especially under the magnifying glass of the playoffs. Artturi Lehkonen's shot deflected off the defending wood of Mark Scheifele, ricocheted suddenly against the unsuspecting stick of Winnipeg's Neal Pionk, and entered the gaping net to gift Colorado a 3-2 lead. The Jets would tie the game again in the third period, but a pair of goals for Rantanen in response would help the Avs earn the Game 5 win, bringing Manitoba's playoff fever to an abrupt and merciless end.

I've never tried, personally, but I understand it's pretty tough to contain the most productive attack in the NHL over the course of a playoff series. That was the task facing the Winnipeg Jets, and based on that point alone, it's no surprise that they fell so quickly while allowing no fewer than five goals every night. The Jets lacked anyone with the scorching creativity of MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Cale Makar, but the one factor in their favor was a very encouraging one: They could put Vezina frontrunner Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes. It didn't make a difference.

I've struggled with how much blame Hellebuyck should deserve for this flop. Game 1 was a mess, but it worked out for Winnipeg. Games 3 and 4 were ones in which the Avs skaters dominated, especially on the power play, and Game 5 had much bigger problems than just goalie. If there's a night where his performance was especially frustrating, it was just Game 2, where Winnipeg let slip a 2-1 lead thanks in part to this clumsy misplay. Nevertheless, goalie is the one area where the Jets outshined everybody this year, and they needed Hellebuyck to do more than just avoid humiliation. Against the Avalanche, he had to be extraordinary. With their key strength frozen over at such a critical moment, it would have taken a miracle for the Jets to escape their doom.

It's a shame, too, because of all the cities in the NHL, it was Winnipeg that most acutely wanted for the jolt of excitement and relevance that a playoff run brings. That's not a dig at a dull city, but an honest take on where this franchise sits in the league hierarchy. Now that the Coyotes have left Arizona, it's the Jets who will absorb the most scrutiny as the team lagging behind in home attendance. There are logical explanations for this shortcoming—a relatively tiny population, season-ticket cancellations during the pandemic, the dissipation of the new-car smell, and a reliance on real people and not just corporations to actually buy these seats—but for a city that already lost its hockey team once, this is a very worrisome subject.

The most straightforward solution to encourage fans to come to the arena would be to re-establish this generation of Jets as more than just first-round fodder. The ecstatic atmosphere after the Game 1 victory was one any hockey fan (or normal person!) would envy. It wasn't too much of a stretch to believe that, if they settled down the action after such a wacky and uncharacteristic 7-6 triumph, this team could win three out of the next six and go on from there. But because they couldn't capitalize, putting just one playoff win to their names for the second year in a row, the feeling you get about the Jets is the same that you can get for free anywhere else in Winnipeg: hanging around until something maybe happens. Now that was a dig at the city.

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