The Vegas Golden Knights made quick work of the Winnipeg Jets, eliminating Winnipeg in five games capping it off with a convincing 4-1 win on Thursday.
With their season on the line, the Winnipeg Jets gave up a pair of goals early in the first two periods and never found their footing, as the Golden Knights won a fourth straight game after dropping the first-round series opener.
“I’m so disappointed and disgusted right now,” a visibly irritated Jets head coach Rick Bowness told reporters in Vegas after the game.
“It’s the same crap we saw in February,” he continued, “as soon as we were challenging for first place and teams came after us, we had no pushback. This series we had no pushback.”
Playing without Mark Scheifele who was injured early in Game 4, and without Josh Morrissey who was ruled out for the rest of the series following an injury in Game 3, there was a sense of hope when Nikolaj Ehlers was finally cleared by the medical staff to make his series debut ahead of Game 5. Ehlers had been sidelined following a hit from Ryan Hartman in Winnipeg’s second-last game of the season that warranted Hartman a one-game suspension.
But the addition of Ehlers was not the turning point Winnipeg was hoping for.
Less than a minute into the game, an ill-advised clearing attempt started by Neal Pionk playing the puck around the back of the net to Brendan Dillon who continued to guide it along the boards with no Winnipeg player nearby, allowed Mark Stone to make a play coming off the bench along the boards, eventually setting up Chandler Stephenson for his third goal of the series, just 50 seconds in and forcing the Jets to play from behind almost immediately.
The Jets only managed five shots on goal in the first and despite the early Vegas goal, they only found themselves down 1-0 after 20 minutes.
But the Jets came out even flatter in the second period falling behind 2-0 just 42 seconds in when Winnipeg-born, Mark Stone, netted his third goal of the series and second point of the game.
Another puck played around the boards by Dylan Demelo got away from Pierre-Luc Dubois in a battle with Alex Pietrangelo when Stone picked up the loose puck with enough time to flip it to himself, glove it, place it on the ice and fire off a shot from the slot, untouched, beating Hellebuyck glove side.
The Jets’ struggles only got worse, as they looked more like a team trying to work out some early-season kinks, while Vegas continued to look stronger as the game (and series) went on.
Just four minutes after doubling the lead, William Karlsson continued his stellar series, scoring his fourth of the in five games to put Vegas up 3-0.
Winnipeg’s best chance came midway through the period when Kyle Connor fed Brendan Dillon with a cross-ice pass to the far faceoff dot, his shot was stopped by Laurent Brossoit, pulling him slightly out of position, and on a juicy rebound, Lowry crept up from the far post for what appeared to be a sure goal, but was robbed by Brossoit who scrambled back to make a highlight glove save to maintain his shutout.
That essentially killed any spirit left in the Jets as Lowry took a hooking penalty shortly after, and just 10 seconds later, Chandler Stephenson netted his second of the game and fourth of the series, on a low-to-high play one-time shot on a feed from Michael Amadio to make it 4-0.
The Jets, in a desperate move to spark some scoring, pulled Connor Hellebuyck with 8:18 left in regulation for the extra attacker.
After the Golden Knights came within inches of making it 5-0 on the empty net attempt from their own end, Kyle Connor finally got the Jets on the board with his third goal of these playoffs to cut the Vegas lead to 4-1. But it was far too little, far too late as the Golden Knights oust the Jets of these playoffs in just five games.
“You work so hard to get into the playoffs and anything can happen,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said post game.
“We had a lot of belief in this group and a lot of belief in the players, the people we have on this team that we could challenge Vegas and hopefully go on a run but unfortunately injuries, a bounce here or there and we’re done in five, so it’s not where we envisioned we’d be, it’s not where we wanted to be but there is going to be time to reflect and takes some positives from this season and use it going forward,” Lowry said.
While Lowry’s response held a shred of optimism, there is no sugarcoating the disappointment that was the 2022-23 Jets season.
A strong start to the season saw them not only claim top spot in the central division for a short time, they also spent some time as the top team in the Western Conference.
But an atrocious stretch of two straight months of sub-.500 hockey following the All-Star break saw the team barely make the playoffs, claiming the final wild card spot on the second last game of the season.
Injuries plagued the Jets throughout the season, but even with a healthy roster, Winnipeg never could find the dominance they enjoyed early in the season.
“There’s got to be pride,” Bowness responded when asked by a reporter in Vegas about what needed to change with his top-end players, “We (have) got to pushback, there’s got to be pushback, there’s got to be pride. You’ve got to be able to push back when things aren’t going your way. We had no push back, their better players were so much better than ours tonight. They were the better team in the regular season, they were the better team this series,” Bowness added before abruptly leaving the podium.
And with many contracts coming up at the end of next season, is this the last we’ve seen of Winnipeg’s long-time core in Jets sweaters?
With Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck becoming unrestricted free agents (UFA) at the end of next year, and Pierre-Luc Dubois being rumoured to want to play in Montreal for the Canadiens becoming a restricted free agent this summer, many believe a rebuild is inevitable. If the first-ever draft selection in Scheifele, and second captain of the team, in Wheeler (who was stripped of his captaincy before the start of the season), were to be dealt, it would mark the end of the most impactful era in Jets 2.0 franchise history.
And will the team’s only general manager since relocating be the one to make those decisions?
In 12 seasons at the helm, Kevin Cheveldayoff has seen his team win just three playoff series, two of which came in 2018 during a memorable playoff run that was cut short in the Western Conference Finals by the very same Vegas Golden Knights.
Signed to a three-year extension after missing the playoffs last season, the seat has to be getting hot after another disappointing season that saw his team fall from the top of the conference and losing four games straight after opening the playoffs with a convincing 5-1 win in Vegas.
While it’s tough to win with so many star players out of the lineup, it’s tough to excuse the perpetual mediocrity the team has endured since moving to Winnipeg. Aside from a series sweep of the Oilers in a strange 2021 playoffs, the Jets have not built on the promise of that 2018 run to the conference finals, and it should make for an interesting offseason that should bring some major changes.
Whether those changes come to fruition, we’ll have to wait and see.