ST. LOUIS — The Winnipeg Jets’ window to win a Stanley Cup isn’t closing, but it does get smaller. In time, players may regret more than they did Saturday that they never even made it up to the window sill this season.
After the Jets were eliminated in six games by the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the National Hockey League playoffs — a 3-2 loss that grossly misrepresented how badly the Jets were outplayed in Game 6 — Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said his team wasn’t perfect but tried as hard as it could.
But the imperfections exposed during an inconsistent season that ended badly were too great.
On Saturday, two days after losing pivotal Game 5 by blowing a two-goal, third-period lead on home ice, the Jets were outshot 27-6 through two periods. They surrendered a goal after 23 seconds on a turnover by top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
The Jets lost every line matchup and when they trailed 3-0 halfway through the third period the deficit easily could have been double that were their best player not goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Winnipeg’s top offensive players were largely invisible.
Captain Blake Wheeler’s hardest shot was the F-bomb he whispered when asked by a Winnipeg reporter after the game about the Jets’ failure to conjure their best for an elimination game.
“Please, come on, man,” Wheeler said. “This is a tough trophy to win. Maybe our best just wasn’t good enough today. And their best was pretty darn good. In situations like that you look for the resolve in your group. You look for how guys fight. And we played until the last whistle. That’s the way I see it.”
Indeed, Byfuglien’s rebound goal that cut the deficit to 3-1 with 7:43 remaining clearly spooked the Blues a little. St. Louis somehow then allowed Bryan Little to score on a shorthanded two-on-one with 38 seconds to go and Hellebuyck on the bench.
But shots finished 36-20. During one 27-minute spell from late in the first period to early in the third, the Jets put one puck on Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. This was the most lopsided one-goal elimination you will ever see.
The momentum generated by the Jets’ collapse on Thursday was turbocharged by Jaden Schwartz’s goal on the first shift.
Veteran Blue Patrick Maroon said he could feel the series shift, and everyone in the rink could see it.
“We talked about bringing that momentum from the third period of Game 5,” St. Louis coach Craig Berube said. “And I think that the guys did. We mentioned it yesterday, talked today about it.
They had good energy and played hard.
“It got a little tighter than we wanted, that’s for sure. But for 50 minutes or more we were pretty dominant.”
Maurice said: “We didn’t have a whole lot of pushback. They sit on (the lead) in the third and that’s part of us being able to come back, for sure. I just didn’t think we had a whole lot left.”
Schwartz, goal-less through the series’ first 14 periods, scored the winner in Game 5 with 15 seconds remaining and then threw down a hat trick in Game 6.
His goal at 23 seconds and the second one on a power play at 12:36 of the middle period with Byfuglien in the penalty box for a dodgy roughing call away from the puck, had the whiff of goalie interference. Maurice lost his coach’s challenge on the first one, so had no timeout left to appeal the second.
Schwartz dragged the puck around a beached Byfuglien and scored on a two-on-one to make it 3-0 at 3:55 of the third.
“They made it pretty easy on me for the most part,” Binnington, the sensational rookie, said of his St. Louis teammates. “We played great and it was fun to watch back there. They were relentless the whole game. The room was excited and positive and believed in each other. That was a great win.”
The Jets, who shed 15 points in the standings this season after losing the Western Conference Final last spring, may not be able to scuffle and still make the playoffs next year. They are likely to lose defencemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to unrestricted free agency, and defenceman Jacob Trouba and wingers Kyle Connors and Patrik Laine are due new, lucrative contracts.
It will be a challenging off-season for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
“No matter what, it’s disappointing,” defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “You work hard all year to put yourself into this position going into the playoffs. It’s really tough. We fought back at the end of that game and tried our best, but it’s disappointing.”
“It’s painful as hell because you think you’re right there,” Maurice said. “But you got beat by a team who thinks the exact same thing.”