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The Winnipeg Jets find themselves in a desperate situation.
After winning Game 1 of the Western Conference final against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the Jets have dropped three straight games as they prepare to host Game 5 Sunday.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Jets were the team that many of the league’s insiders were talking about as the conference finals got underway. They had taken apart the Minnesota Wild in five games in the opening round of the playoffs and had outlasted the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in seven games in the second round.
They had clinched their trip to the final round with a victory at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and the Jets were playing like a hungry team that knew how to take advantage of its opportunities.
That momentum continued in Game 1 against the Predators, as they scored three early goals en route to winning a 4-2 decision.
That’s when the Golden Knights basically put up a stop sign. They said no to the Jets’ team speed and started playing restrictive defense on Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Dustin Byfuglien. Instead of pouring home clutch goals and celebrating with hugs and high fives, the Jets have suddenly hit a dry spell and they are on the brink of elimination.
They have to win Sunday afternoon, or they will be done with hockey for the summer.
Conference Final Remaining Schedule (all times ET)
Eastern Conference Final, Tampa Bay leads series 3-2
Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, May 21, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, May 23, 8 p.m., NBCSN, if necessary
Western Conference Final, Vegas leads series 3-1
Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, May 20, 3 p.m., NBC
Winnipeg Jets at Vegas Golden Knights, May 22, 9 p.m., NBCSN, if necessary
Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, May 24, 8 p.m., NBCSN, if necessary
Games can be live-streamed on NBC Sports Live and NBC Sports app.
Harry How/Getty Images
The Jets are trying to maintain a confident attitude, as evidenced by forward Adam Lowry’s remarks. “Well, we have the belief,” Lowry said, per Scott Billeck of NHL.com. “[The] fourth game is the hardest one to win. I think we feel like we’ve been right there in this whole series. I think for the most part we really liked our game [on Friday]. We’ve been a great team at home all year.”
That may have been the case during the regular season, but the Jets have lost three of their last four home playoff games (two to Nashville; one to Vegas).
Vegas won both of its home games to take its current edge in the series, but they were close games (4-2 and 3-2) and the Jets had moments where they dominated play but could not get the puck by Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
The winning goal in Game 4 came late in the third period as Byfuglien whiffed on a shot from the right point and Reilly Smith gathered the puck and skated into the Winnipeg zone before whipping a wrist shot by Connor Helleybuck
Head coach Paul Maurice may have been sending a message to his players with his remarks following Saturday’s practice.
“These are the best games, always are, when everything is on the line,” Maurice said, per Billeck. “Everybody will be at their most excited. You have to find a way. It shouldn’t be very difficult to love every minute of it.
“The greater the stakes in anything, we think, especially when you live a life in pro sports, eventually that’s what it’s all about. This has to be your finest hour. Before the puck drops, I’m not talking about the play, be able to get your mind that this is the most fun game of the year now.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning have righted the ship in the Eastern Conference Final and have taken a 3-2 lead over the Washington Capitals following their 3-2 home victory Saturday night.
The Lightning scored at the 19-second mark when Cedric Paquette took advantage of a Washington defensive gaffe and beat Capitals goalie with a quick shot, and Tampa Bay went on to build a 3-0 lead.
The Caps played much better in the second and third periods, but could not score in the final minute and they are facing elimination when they host the Jets Monday night in Game 6.
“There was a little bit of [rope-a-dope] from us at the end,” said Tampa Bay’s star defenseman Victor Hedman, per Mike Zeisberger of NHL.com. “You know they’re going to push. Obviously being down, well, we’ve been in that situation ourselves. We did enough to get the win. Obviously you want to push more yourself but that’s how the games go sometimes.”
It’s the most tense time of year for most players and coaches – but not Marc-Andre Fleury. #StanleyCup https://t.co/IBh9CUYPtb https://t.co/jiFCmnK3sU
The Jets are in desperate shape at home in Game 5, and they clearly want to get Fleury off of his game by scoring a couple of early goals and putting the Golden Knights on the defensive.
The Jets should carry the play early and it would not be a surprise if they score the first goal. However, that won’t be enough. If Winnipeg doesn’t build at least a two-goal advantage, Vegas will settle down and turn the game into a dog fight.
Look for a tight, close game, and there’s no stopping the Golden Knights from getting the job done in the third period or overtime and winning this series in five games.
The Caps may have lost three straight games, but that doesn’t mean this series is over. Tampa Bay finally figured a way to win on home ice, and the Capitals should be able to do the same thing Monday night.
Washington squares the series thanks to outstanding play by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and the Eastern Conference Final heads to a winner-take-all Game 7 showdown Wednesday night.