Thursday, April 20, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Morgan Barron had only one message to the Winnipeg Jets’ medical team before they began applying 75 stitches to his face Tuesday night at the T-Mobile Arena.
“I’ve got to get back (in the game),” the 24-year-old Jets’ forward kept saying, according to Winnipeg coach Rick Bowness.
Barron left a trail of blood on the ice stretching from the goalie crease to the visiting bench after the skate of Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Laurent Brossoit sliced the skin just to the side of Barron’s right eye. He was the biggest casualty of a first period in the Jets’ and Golden Knights’ first-round playoff series that saw the top-seeded home team push around the visitors.
The Jets shed blood, sustained some bruising hits and surely had their ears ringing from a berserk postseason crowd. Winnipeg forward Pierre-Luc Dubois mentioned the impact of the Vegas crowd early, and the Golden Knights recorded 27 first-period hits — three more than their regular-season average per game.
But, much like some of the fighters who will fill T-Mobile Arena Saturday as part of Saturday’s blockbuster boxing card, the Jets kept getting up and pressing forward. With Barron back taking his normal shifts, Winnipeg came out fresh in the second period and scored twice to take, and ultimately maintain, control of the game.
That resilience was the difference in the Jets’ 5-1 victory in. Game 1 of the best-of-7 series, the biggest reason why the Golden Knights find themselves down 1-0 heading into tonight’s Game 2 at 7 p.m. before the action shifts to Winnipeg
“(Barron) came back and looked at me and (said), ‘I’m ready,’ ” Bowness recalled after the game. “I was like, ‘Do you need a little skate or something?’ He was like, ‘No, I’m ready to go,’ and went right out and banged into someone. That’s Winnipeg Jet hockey. … That’s an inspiration to our players.”
The Jets were tougher than the Golden Knights in Game 1. If Vegas wants to avoid getting upset and bowing out of the playoffs prematurely, that has to change.
Old-school hockey fans frequently harp on the increased importance of physicality and fortitude in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sometimes, to be frank, it’s quite overblown.
But that’s not the case in this series. Neither the Golden Knights nor the Jets are going to skate circles around the other. There’s not a big enough personnel gap to expect Vegas to out-skill Winnipeg either.
Intangibles are going to play a major role, and so far, Winnipeg has the edge in that department.
“It’s playoff hockey, right?” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need an intensity level greater than the one we had.”
The Golden Knights didn’t take as much of a physical beating as the Jets did in Game 1, but they did a poor job in bouncing back from a mental one. Vegas appeared shellshocked after Dubois was the key to a pair of second-period goals in the span of 62 seconds.
First, he drove to divert the attention of Brossoit before firing a primary assist to Kyle Connor in the middle of the ice. Then Dubois beat Brossoit over the shoulder on a breakaway.
The Golden Knights never looked the same. They managed one great play when William Karlsson showcased the speed that has endeared him to local fans for six consecutive seasons, flying down the slot and finishing on a feed from Ivan Barbashev to make it 2-1.
But any boost the Golden Knights received from that late second-period goal evaporated in the third, when Jets star Blake Wheeler backhanded in a shot to reestablish a two-goal Winnipeg lead.
Vegas didn’t get a single shot on goal until midway through the third period and drew some scattered boos when the drought continued during a late-game power play opportunity.
“It wasn’t a great night for us,” Vegas captain Mark Stone said. “Obviously we would have liked to have come up with a better effort. I don’t know if we thought being the No. 1 seed would be easy or what.”
Toughness isn’t an area where anyone would expect Vegas to be lacking. The Golden Knights don’t play a bullying brand of hockey, but this is the most defensive-minded team in franchise history, with Cassidy preaching taking the onus off the goalie.
The Golden Knights led the league with 1,493 blocked shots during the regular season and stayed unafraid of sacrificing their bodies to start the playoffs. Depth forward Brett Howden specifically was shrieking in pain in the first period on the bench after diving in front of a Jets wrister.
As Game 1 wore on, that level of determination waned for the Golden Knights. It never did for the Jets.
Vegas might have finished with 16 more points than Winnipeg in the regular season, but the advanced numbers all painted this series as closer than the standings indicated. The Golden Knights can probably claim the better skaters, but the Jets definitely have the better goalie in 2020 Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck.
But Hellbuyck didn’t even have to do much in Game 1 with only 16 saves, including eight in the first period. His team showed it could endure some pain and come back stronger.
Now the Golden Knights need to do the same.
“When we’re good, we’re on top of teams,” Cassidy said. “It shows in the chance totals, the shot count, a lot of different things. We weren’t that team (in Game 1).”