Fittingly, it was Mark Scheifele who put the finishing touch on the Winnipeg Jets’ first-round series victory with a power-play goal early in the third period.
Scheifele was magnificent in the opening round with four goals, despite having only four games of Stanley Cup playoff experience before the Jets series against the Minnesota Wild began 10 days ago.
The 25-year-old Scheifele led the Jets to the promised land, a 5-0 win to lock up the series in five games and ignite quite a party inside the Bell MTS Centre and outside on Donald St., as well as the entire city.
You see the connection, don’t you? The last time the hockey-mad denizens of Winnipeg celebrated a playoff series win was 31 years ago when a 24-year-old Dale Hawerchuk also scored a power-play goal to help the Jets beat the Calgary Flames 6-1 for a six-game series win in the opening round of the 1987 post-season at the old Winnipeg Arena.
In that game three-plus decades ago, the Jets also built a 4-0 lead in the first period, just like Winnipeg did on Friday in its clincher.
Hawerchuk later would coach a teenaged Scheifele for three seasons with the OHL Barrie Colts. The former may have even tipped off the Jets’ management that the Kitchener, Ont. native was worth the surprise pick at seventh overall at the 2011 draft, the first draft for the Jets in their return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, the old defenceman from Saskatoon, has used the past seven years to build quite a deep, talented lineup around Scheifele.
There are the booming hits of one-time Stanley Cup-champion Dustin Byfuglien, the whiz kids of Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and defenceman Josh Morrissey, the team grit and the goaltending of 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck wasn’t up to snuff in Game 3 in the Jets’ only loss, but he responded with back-to-back shutouts to finish the series.
The Winnipeg fans deserved this outcome. Their NHL team was stolen from them due to poor ownership in 1996 with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman aiding and abetting because he desired to move a team to the Phoenix area, one of the fastest growing cities in the United States at the time.
Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was unflappable in picking up his second consecutive shutout in the series.(John Woods/Canadian Press)
It wasn’t until Canadian billionaire David Thomson and Mark Chipman came together to form True North Sports and Entertainment that the NHL began to take the Manitoba capital city seriously again.
Thankfully, the Atlanta Thrashers franchise floundered. It needed a new home and the wonderful fans of Winnipeg welcomed the “new” Jets back with enthusiastic arms.
They have filled the Bell MTS Centre for six mediocre seasons, making it the loudest building in the league and certainly housed the most creative fans with their different chants. Late in the game, it was head coach Paul Maurice who was feted with a shout out.
Then, this year happened. Everything came together. The whiteout lived on and how.
Hellebuyck has come into his own. The youngsters have come into their own. Captain Blake Wheeler has provided leadership and a career year. Byfuglien is playing the way he did when he helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the 2010 Stanley Cup. The solid play of the third and fourth lines, as well as defence, has been sound, too.
Taking care of the Wild swiftly will be a big help to rest up and time for the injured players to heal for the next round, likely against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators, who held a 3-1 series lead entering their late home game against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday.
It doesn’t seem fair that the first and second overall teams could meet so soon in the next round. The current playoff format needs a makeover.
But it doesn’t matter right now. The Jets have moved on to the next round and with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season hanging by a thread, the Jets look like they will get their moment in the spotlight as Canada’s team for the next two weeks and possibly longer.
We can’t wait to see what transpires with Scheifele and Co.
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CBC | Sports News