The arena was full and 25,000 people were packed as tightasthis in the streets outside. Bobby Hull, the Hall of Famer who helped establish Winnipeg as a hockey town, was in the house.
Disappointment would not interrupt the fanciful story that has been building on the Canadian prairies Saturday night.
The Winnipeg Jets scored early and often to put away the upstarts from Las Vegas in the first game of the Western Conference finals. They had goals from four different players in their 4-2 victory at Bell MTS Place, including one from Mark Scheifele who has 12 in 13 postseason games to lead the NHL.
“They scored on the first shift, and played real well,” said Gerard Gallant, the coach of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights. “We were chasing the game all night. They outworked us.”
The Jets scored first in seven of the eight games they won in the first two rounds, and did it again.
Dustin Byfuglien blasted a slap shot by Marc-Andre Fleury a little over one minute into the game. The crowd erupted, inside and out.
“A huge goal,” Scheifele said.
It was early but they weren’t done.
A power play led to the Jets’ second goal with 13:11 left in the first period. Patrik Laine scored from near the right faceoff circle. Then a scramble in front of the Golden Knights’ net resulted in yet another score just 36 seconds later. This time, a behind-the-back pass by Ben Chiarot deflected off one of Joel Armia’s skates and eluded Fleury.
The goal was immediately waved off by an official who believed the puck had been kicked in. A video review determined it wasn’t, but then the Golden Knights argued for goalie interference.
A second review showed Fleury was not interfered with. Suddenly, it was 3-0, and fans began chanting, “We want Subban.”
They weren’t calling for P.K., whom they booed non-stop in the second-round series, but for Malcolm. He is P.K.’s younger brother, and the backup to Fleury.
He had four shutouts in the first two rounds, but allowed three goals in his first eight shots against the Jets.
“He is awful,” Gallant said, mocking a question about Fleury’s performance. “He is the best goalie in the playoffs and I think he will be.”
The Jets would not find it necessary to score again to win after that. They did though, sandwiching a goal by Scheifele in between scores by Brayden McNabb and William Karlsson of Vegas.
The Golden Knights never mounted much of a threat in the third period. At one point, they went more than 12 minutes without getting a shot on goal. They pulled Fleury with 2:40 remaining and still made no headway.
The Jets’ defence played so well that they had one more blocked shot – 22 – than Vegas had shots in the game.
“It is the game we like to play,” Connor Hellebuyck said. “We got on them and put the pressure on.”
The victory moved the Jets one win closer to their first berth in the Stanley Cup finals. The best-of-seven series continues Monday in Winnipeg, before two games are played in Las Vegas.
Before this season, no Winnipeg team had ever gotten beyond two rounds in the NHL playoffs.
That’s why there is delirium in the streets. It is why the fans are so loud, and the arena is the toughest in the league for visiting teams.
“We feed off our fans,” Scheifele said. “They are a big reason why we are here.”
It was the biggest game in Winnipeg since 1979, when the Jets won the final championship in the World Hockey Association. They survived because Bobby Hull, one of the biggest stars in the NHL, jumped to the startup league for $1.75-million contract and a $1-million signing bonus. That sort of money was unheard of in hockey then.
The Jets lasted all seven seasons in the WHA and joined the NHL with three other teams in 1980. They have never matched the success they had in their early days, but they are getting much closer now.
They are fast and also play a fun, rugged style of old-fashioned hockey.
Both teams exchanged bone-jarring hits throughout the game on Saturday night. In the first period, Ryan Reaves of Vegas drove his shoulder into Blake Wheeler and flipped the Winnipeg captain backwards into the Golden Knights’ bench. In the second, a shoving match in front of Hellebuyck evolved into three fights involving two players each.
Both teams ended up with two sent to the penalty box, including Winnipeg’s bearded forward Mathieu Perreault who looks, if not acts, like one of Jesus’s disciples more every day.
The Jets won a hard-fought series over Nashville, the NHL’s best team during the regular season, in seven games. They haven’t lost twice in a row since March 12-13, and haven’t lost back-to-back in regulation time since Feb. 9-11.