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With Jets' bad third-period luck, Winnipeg's a nervous town

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Friday, April 12, 2019 – Page B11

WINNIPEG -- Hockey slowly evolves - but at least most rule changes improve the game.

When the NHL formed back in 1917, they dropped the rover position, meaning more ice surface for 10 skaters rather than 12.

That same year, they let goalies go down to make a save. They allowed for forward passing in 1929. They switched from two halves to three periods in 1910.

That's one the Winnipeg Jets might like to have back.

The reason for three periods rather than two halves was obvious - clear the snow - but today's NHL features so many breaks for ice cleaning by shovel crews that eliminating that third period is at least thinkable, even if it's never going to happen.

Third periods have been a pain this season for the Jets. When they let a 1-0 lead slip away Wednesday night and watched the St. Louis Blues score twice in the third period to win 2-1 in Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs, it marked the 10th time in 2018-19 that the Jets let a game slip away.

That, the fact that the Jets dropped 15 points from their remarkable 114 points in 2017-18, and the reality that they stumbled in February and March and barely held on to home advantage to start the playoffs, has made this a nervous town. Fans don't want to think the unthinkable; players would rather avoid talking about it.

Asked by reporters Thursday morning what happened to his team in the third, Jets captain Blake Wheeler deadpanned: "They scored a goal to tie the game, then they scored another goal to win it late."

B-b-but what about this pattern of losing leads?

"I think it's just a strange coincidence, my friend."

Similar questions were surely asked in Florida this morning, as the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning - after an NHL-record-tying 62 wins in the regular season - let slip a 3-0 lead in the first period, let slip a 3-1 lead after two periods and saw the Columbus Blue Jackets score three in the third for a 4-3 win.

"Who was the last team to go 16-0 in the playoffs?" Wheeler asked. "Has that ever happened?

We didn't expect to do that."

"You're going to lose games," Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice added Thursday. "There's a long list of Stanley Cup champions who get down in the series then have come back. So handling that adversity is a story for every single team.

"I guess we could see a 16-0 [playoff run]. There might have been a prediction of that before [Wednesday] night started," he said with a sly grin, the reference to the Lightning unspoken but obvious.

In Tampa Bay, they cancelled practice and held meetings. The players there carried much the same message to the gathered media as was delivered in Winnipeg: Don't change, keep working, keep it simple, chip pucks in, stay with the plan. There needs be no media availability to know these will be the fallback answers.

Maurice said he was generally pleased with his team's play and regretted that the Jets had lost so many "'A' chances" - a clear breakaway, a partial breakaway, at least two posts hit.

The St. Louis Blues won on a late goal that came from stellar work along the boards and back of the Winnipeg net by winger Pat Maroon, who then spotted Tyler Bozak in the slot, fed him a pass and Bozak, once a long-time Toronto Maple Leaf, beat Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck with a quick shot. Both Maroon and Bozak were curiously unattended.

It was a game of quick and powerful momentum shifts. The Jets came out hard and aggressive in the first and held on through the second period. Maurice was insistent that his team was never "sitting on" that one-goal lead. In the third period, however, the aggressiveness shifted to the Blues and it seemed the Jets were caught, especially in their own end.

Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly, who successfully took several key faceoffs as the game wound down, thought that his team stole the game a bit. Teammate Alex Steen, who was born in Winnipeg, said it was more a case of the Blues' confidence growing as the game moved along. "We got two huge goals there in the third."

"Those are the times that I live for," O'Reilly said. "I love being on the ice there at the end and having the high-pressure situations."

"Tampa tied the NHL record for wins this year and they're down 0-1," Wheeler added when he was no longer deadpanning. "There's so much parity in the league, if you're going to be devastated by a loss or two losses, you have no business expecting to win the Stanley Cup."

The Jets' plan for Game 2 in Winnipeg on Friday night, said the captain, was simple: "Show up and work the way our team knows how to work. And if, God willing, we aren't able to win that game or we win that game, we're going to manage it the exact same way going into St. Louis."

"You're trying to win four games," Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey added, "and it doesn't matter if they are at home or on the road."

"We can be better," St. Louis head coach Craig Berube promised. "We have to be better. Because they are going to be better.

That's the way you have to look at the next game. They are going to come out harder. They are going to be better. We have to ramp our game up. We have to be better, too.

Match it."

Associated Graphic

Asked by reporters what happened to his team in the third period during Wednesday's game against the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, left, said simply, 'They scored a goal to tie the game, then they scored another goal to win it late.'


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