By ROBERT MACLEOD
Saturday, April 20, 2019
D ST. LOUIS -- All series the Winnipeg Jets have been battling long odds.
The question now is, in the aftermath of a gut-wrenching defeat on home ice to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, can the Jets find the resolve to fend off elimination in these topsy-turvy NHL playoffs?
Game 6 of this rugged opening-round Western Conference series is in St. Louis on Saturday night at Enterprise Center with the Blues returning home with a 3-2 edge in the best-of-sevengame battle.
The Jets, who at one time trailed 2-0 in the series, need to win to push the series to the limit. They have been battling back the entire way, so it is a situation they should be getting comfortable with.
"No different than being down 0-2," Jets team captain Blake Wheeler said with the appropriate bravado after Thursday's 3-2 white-knuckle setback in Winnipeg. "Happens all the time, man.
Gotta win a hockey game.
"Won almost a hundred of them the last two years. So we're confident we can do that."
Forward Kevin Hayes was more direct.
"We've got to stay positive in this room. We've been down before in this series and we'll have a good game next game."
"If we lose, we're done. That's enough motivation. Game 6 will be our best game."
It has been a tight, evenly played series in which home ice has been meaningless, with the visiting team winning every night. The play of both goaltenders, Jordan Binnington for St. Louis and Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck, has been mostly solid.
Winnipeg lost the first two at home before rebounding to win the next two in St. Louis. The Jets thought momentum was clearly in their corner heading back to Winnipeg for Game 5 and things certainly looked good as Winnipeg built a 2-0 lead in the first period.
The inventive fans at Bell MTS Place took to serenading Binnington with a resounding "You look nervous" chant after the Blues fell behind. It was a reaction to his, "Do I look nervous?" response he gave to a reporter's question before the series started.
The Jets will be lamenting the fact that they could have easily padded that lead.
Hayes, who had one of the Winnipeg goals in the first period, had the unusual experience of stopping what would have been Winnipeg's third marker in the second period with his own stick in the goal crease.
You can't make this stuff up.
Hayes was being closely checked by St. Louis's Colton Parayko at the time.
"The puck went through [Binnington's] legs, Parayko lifted my stick and my stick came down and hit it out," explained Hayes, who was also thwarted on a late breakaway later in the period.
"There's going to be chances that you're shaking the head at, Kevin Hayes alone had a hat trick on his stick," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said.
And the Blues took advantage of their good fortune in the third period, starting with Ryan O'Reilly, who scored within the opening two minutes on the power play.
Brayden Schenn tied it up on a controversial goal with just over seven minutes left to go in regulation.
As Schenn swooped in front and knocked in a backhand shot the net was jostled off its moorings by teammate Oskar Sundqvist just as the puck crossed the goalline. Sundqvist had been pushed into the net by Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien.
After a video review, the goal was allowed to stand, setting the stage for Jaden Schwartz's dramatic winner with just 15 seconds remaining.
Again, the Jets were left feeling hard done by on that goal as Schwartz somehow got the blade of his stick on a corner feed from Tyler Bozak that buzzed in at knee level. The puck then changed direction about 90 degrees and skirted past a stunned Hellebuyck.
"Lucky pinballs," is how Hellebuyck described the play afterward. "The puck just bounced and ended up right on their tape.
Tough to eat that one, but I thought we were the better team.
If we keep fighting here, it's not over."
Although Winnipeg is supported by some of the zaniest fans in the NHL, the Jets play on their home ice the past while has been spotty.
In advancing to the Western Conference finals last year, the Jets won the series opener against the Vegas Golden Knights at home. And that was it. The Knights went on to eliminate the Jets four games to one with the Jets losing two of those games in Winnipeg.
When you include their struggles in the opening round this year, the Jets have now lost five successive playoff games at home.
"You don't see that too often, right?" Blues defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. "You don't see the road team win all the games but, again, we've got to go home and we played better in Game 4 there so we've got to build off that."
St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, right, moves the puck past from Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets, centre, during Game 5 at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg on Thursday.
JASON HALSTEAD/GETTY IMAGES