Published Tuesday, April 18, 2023 | 9:09 p.m.
Updated 20 minutes ago
While the Winnipeg Jets had to play close-to-perfect hockey down the stretch just to make the playoffs, the Golden Knights played meaningful games in the final weeks of the regular season, as well.
That’s why Tuesday’s result is a shocker.
It’s not just that the Jets came into T-Mobile Arena and dominated the Golden Knights 5-1 in Game 1 of their first-round series. It’s that the Jets stole home-ice advantage without all-world goalie Connor Hellebuyck barely seeing any action, and the Golden Knights looking out of sorts for the majority of the night.
Game 2 is here Thursday (7 p.m., ATTSN-RM).
“We didn’t play as confident,” center Jack Eichel said, “and it just wasn’t our best.”
For the first playoff game at T-Mobile Arena since May 2021, the atmosphere was as some would remember. A raucous crowd of 18,006 had their rally towels at the ready, the volume was turned up to 10 and the excitement of being one of the last 16 teams remaining was evident.
But the best fight from the Golden Knights in Game 1 was from their pregame show when a golden dragon burned a projected jet to a crisp.
The Golden Knights were the uncharacteristic aggressors early on. For a team that averaged 23 hits a game during the regular season, they had 27 in the first 20 minutes.
That was Vegas’ best shot. Winnipeg answered with a haymaker.
The Jets scored twice in a 62-second span early in the second period thanks to their top line. Kyle Connor scored on a one-timer from center Pierre-Luc Dubois at 1:24 to open the scoring, then Dubois scored off a turnover for the 2-0 lead.
For Winnipeg to give Hellebuyck, arguably the best goalie in the world, that lead while already controlling the neutral zone and preventing easy entries was all it needed to stifle Vegas.
The Golden Knights got on the board late in the second when William Karlsson scored off the rush at 15:49 to cut the lead in half and reignite life into the home crowd.
Yet that was all Vegas could get. Winnipeg added three more in the third, including the eventual game-winner from Blake Wheeler 3:53 into the third for a 3-1 lead.
Two of those goals came off turnovers. One was off losing an offensive-zone faceoff.
“Those guys, especially that top line, they have high-end skill,” captain Mark Stone said. “If you’re going to turn it over, they’re going to make you pay.”
Part of that excitement was supposed to stem off the return of Stone, who was in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 12 after having his second back surgery in less than a year.
Stone, who started on the third line and was moved to the first line with Vegas looking for a spark, played 21:28 and was a minus-3.
“It felt like I had missed three months,” Stone said. “Pace of the game is ramped up at this time (of year). Hopefully, just feel better going into next game, but no excuses. I’ve been in this league long enough to know what needs to be done.”
Stone will wear the blame, but it was a game to forget for a lot of the star players.
Eichel had just two shots on goal in his first-ever playoff game. Five forwards — Jonathan Marchessault, Ivan Barbashev, Chandler Stephenson, Keegan Kolesar and Stone — did not have a single shot on goal. Winnipeg out-attempted Vegas 61-47.
Laurent Brossoit finished with 26 saves in his first playoff start against his former team and allowed four goals. It was far from his fault. Winnipeg had 14 shots in the first period and while Brossoit had shaky moments behind his net at times, he still turned away all shots in the first.
“It’s playoff hockey,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need an intensity level that’s greater than the one we had.”
Cassidy switched the lines midway through the second and it lit a spark. Stone and Stephenson were moved to the top line with Eichel, while Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith were reunited. Marchessault assisted Karlsson on his goal.
But that rare opportunity off the rush was the only bright spot offensively the Golden Knights produced in the final 40 minutes.
Vegas had two shots combined in the third period. Part of it was due to Winnipeg shutting down the neutral zone, but it was a microcosm of how off the Golden Knights were all night.
“Overall, not a great effort for us offensively,” Stone said. “Defensively, it wasn’t terrible. Most of the stuff they got was from bad offensive play.”
If the Golden Knights can rest easy on anything, they weren’t the home team to lose Game 1. In fact, all four road teams in the West won their opening games with Colorado, Dallas and Edmonton all losing to start the playoffs.
Vegas has been in this situation as recently as the shortened season in 2021, when they lost Game 1 to Minnesota and Colorado in Rounds 1 and 2, respectively, before rallying to win both series.
Another effort like the one Tuesday could result in trouble for the top seed in the West, but the Golden Knights are confident in their ability to bounce back.
“I look at it now, we’ve got to win four out of six. It doesn’t matter how you do it. You just got to do it,” Stone said. “We’ll have to just look at ourselves in the mirror and get it done.”
Danny Webster can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected] Follow Danny on Twitter at twitter.com/DannyWebster21.