For the first time since the birth of the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise 19 years ago, the team will see the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the city of Winnipeg, a 31-year wait has ended with thunderous applause.
For Minnesota, however, an arduous struggle has ended in back-to-back blankings at the hands of a Jets squad that far outclassed them. The Wild fought as best they could, but with the absence of Ryan Suter on defense, and the loss of Zach Parise after Game 3, the tools for them to compete with a stacked Winnipeg roster just weren’t there. Pile on some notably lackluster performances from key players like Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle (all held scoreless in the series) and there was really no hope to overcome the juggernaut Jets.
The Wild knew to have any shot at surviving Game 5 they’d need to play the perfect road game and try to keep the Jets from building momentum and getting the raucous crowd involved. This strategy lasted all of 31 seconds.
A strong opening shift was capped off when Jacob Trouba received a cross-ice pass from Mark Scheifele at the top of the right circle, took a few strides towards the net and ripped a wrist shot past Devan Dubnyk to ignite Bell MTS Place in the first minute.
A Winnipeg penalty shortly after the goal threatened to kill the energy, but strong work on the PK kept the tide in the Jets’ favor, and shortly after the conclusion of the penalty Trouba (who had himself a game) nearly scored on an odd-man rush, before nearly tipping home a follow-up shot right after. Dubnyk was trying desperately to keep his team alive and settle things down.
Unfortunately for the Minnesota netminder, his efforts were for nothing, as on the following faceoff Dustin Byfuglien let go a wrist shot from the right point that Bryan Little redirected beautifully past an unsuspecting Dubnyk for the 2-0 lead, still just 5:42 into the game.
Still the Jets kept coming, and the Wild had no answer. A Brandon Tanev shot nearly went in off the skate of Dubnyk after bouncing off of the end boards. Then Niederreiter tried to create a scoring opportunity by dancing around one Winnipeg defender only to get blown up by Big Buff as he attempted to let the shot go. Then Tanev, apparently upset at his previous failure, stripped a fumbling Jonas Brodin of the puck at his defensive blueline and fired a quick turnaround wrister through Dubnyk before he had time to react, Winnipeg taking a 3-0 lead with 8:50 to play. Tanev’s first career playoff goal.
Just 49 seconds later things went from calamity to catastrophe when an initial attempt from Andrew Copp rebounded out high to a locked and loaded Byfuglien, who proceeded to unload a bomb that redirected off of Joel Armia (his first playoff goal, just to stick with the theme) and into the net.
It was now 4-0 with 8:01 to play in the first period, and a mercy pulling was in order. Bruce Boudreau sent Alex Stalock in to relieve Dubnyk of his nightmare, and he returned to the bench to a standing reception from his teammates. Captain Mikko Koivu walked down to the end of the bench after Dubnyk sat down, seemingly to say “We’re sorry, this is on us.” to his visibly emotional goaltender.
Winnipeg fans, however, did not share in Koivu’s sympathies, as a chant of “We Want Dubnyk” rang out not long after the resumption of play. Apparently even after a long, cold winter, Winnipeg still has plenty of salt to go around.
The period ended with the Jets outshooting Minnesota 13-7, but the play was even more lopsided than that would indicate.
Early in the second Minnesota got their proverbial “This one just isn’t going to go your way” sign from the hockey gods, as a Mikael Granlund rush drew Connor Hellebuyck out of his net, giving Granlund an open cage to tuck a wraparound into, only to see the puck sail across the crease along the goal line and bounce off of multiple Winnipeg skates just inches from paydirt, only to be cleared away.
Minnesota did finally gain some offensive traction to their credit, though the second notable opportunity was a Niederreiter rush that was met with a shot block and subsequent leveling hit by Trouba. Ironically even though they controlled a lot of the play early in the second, the Wild would not record a shot for nearly eight minutes of play.
The game’s only real notable save came from the left pad of Stalock who denied a seemingly sure-thing one-timer right on the doorstep at the bottom of the left circle from Scheifele just past the game’s halfway mark.
A Wild power play around the 11:00 mark brought some more offensive traction to the visitors, who had a few quality chances on the power play followed up by a Niederreiter breakaway all turned aside. Jason Zucker found iron on a later power play, but Hellebucyk simply couldn’t be solved.
The Jets put a stamp on the game just 32 seconds into the third with a beautiful high-low-high passing sequence from Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, and Scheifele capped off by a beautiful one-time rip from #55 into the net from the low slot.
Sensing victory was now firmly in hand, the Winnipeg Whiteout crowd started to take over the third period. Multiple renditions of Bananarama’s ‘Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye’ were belted out in perfect harmony at numerous points in the frame, starting with the initial performance just after the puck had dropped following the 5-0 goal.
Blake Wheeler nearly made it 6-0 on a beautiful backhand tip of a Scheifele centering pass, but the hockey gods had decided enough was enough, so it found the crossbar and vacated the goal crease without further incident.
‘We Want Nashville!’ is now the chant. Bold, Winnipeg. Bold.
Later in the period a fan took a deflected puck to the face, only to be tossed a towel by Matt Hendricks (making his series debut) and signal to everyone in attendance that they were still very much alive, drawing a rousing round of applause.
The standing ovation started with 2:30 to play, and was only interrupted by an obligatory singalong to ‘Sweet Caroline’ at 2:10. The final minute of play was basically just one long explosion of noise as the city erupted into a party that I assume will still be occurring when the sun rises. On Monday.
In the end, Connor Hellebucyk posted his second-consecutive shutout to seal the series, and the Parise-less Wild fail to score a single goal. It’s hard for Minnesota to argue that injuries were the only reason they couldn’t climb this mountain, as Winnipeg faced games without Tyler Myers, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey among others, and played the entire series without Toby Enstrom. It just speaks to their incredible depth that even when missing key contributors they could still trounce Minnesota with relative ease.
Now with a long rest ahead of them to get healthy before a likely (at least as of this writing) Second Round matchup for the ages with Nashville, the Jets have a little time to celebrate before looking towards what lay ahead.
Special shoutout to 20-year veteran and three-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Cullen, who may have just played the final game of a fantastic career.