For the Winnipeg Jets, the strangest season ever ends with a Kubrick-worthy anticlimax

Canada

There’s a pivotal scene in the film version of The Shining where Dick Hallorann — the psychic chef character played by Scatman Crothers — rolls up to the snowy Overlook Hotel.

Hallorann’s arrival is built up carefully as a hero’s entrance in third act of the 1980 movie. But as soon as he steps inside the hotel lobby, he’s ambushed and murdered by Jack Torrance, the crazed writer played by Jack Nicholson.

Thursday night in Edmonton, the Winnipeg Jets found out what it was like to watch a slow-moving horror movie that suddenly gets exciting before all hope is crushed in an instant.

The Jets waited four and a half months to play hockey during the NHL’s pandemic pause. They arrived in the Edmonton postseason bubble full of optimism and enthusiasm. 

They were then bounced from playoff contention in the space of six short days.

“The feeling now is complete emptiness,” Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said in a virtual scrum after the Calgary Flames ended the Jets’ hopes of qualifying for the main bracket of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

On Thursday, Calgary shut out Winnipeg 4-0 in the fourth game of the best-of-five qualifying round series that was effectively over five minutes into Game 1.

That’s when contact between Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk and Jets centre Mark Scheifele led the Winnipeg playoff workhorse to jam his left leg into the boards and suffer what Maurice has now revealed to be a crushing injury.

The series effectively ended before Scheifele had a chance to play the hero during another playoff run. 

It was a fitting end to a season where the Jets couldn’t catch any break that didn’t involve a physical injury.

“I’ve never had a team go through what this team’s been through,” said Maurice, referring to a 2019-2020 season that started with the loss of five players who were integral to Winnipeg’s deep 2018 playoff run and also helped the club be competitive in 2019.

Defenceman Jacob Trouba got traded to the New York Rangers. Defencemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot and forward Brandon Tanev signed with other teams as free agents. Fan-favourite defenceman Dustin Byfuglien didn’t report to training camp and eventually left the club. 

Add in a pile of regular-season injuries — most notably to centre Bryan Little — and the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic just as Winnipeg was starting to play well and, well, you have a season to dismember.

“It’s extraordinary, to say the least, the circumstances we’re all in now — but par for the course, for the Winnipeg Jets, [given] the year that we had,” Maurice said.

Things didn’t end so well for Jack Torrance in The Shining, either. (Courtesy: Warner Bros.)

On paper, Calgary was supposed to be the superior hockey team, given the Flames’ commitment to team defence during the abbreviated regular season as well as its ability to out-chance the competition, especially compared to Winnipeg.

The Jets’ hopes of winning the series rested on goalie Connor Hellebuyck and the offensive talents of its five most skilled forwards.

Scheifele’s crushing injury all but crushed those hopes immediately. A sprained hand took sniper Patrik Laine out of competition two periods later.

Captain Blake Wheeler and leading regular-season scorer Kyle Connor failed to finish in front of the net. 

Only speedy Nikolaj Ehlers proved to be a real threat to Calgary, at least among the Jets’ Frightening Five.

The Flames’ aggressive forechecking and careful defensive play offered Winnipeg few high-danger scoring chances. 

Hellebuyck, meanwhile, was outshone by Calgary goalie Cam Talbot, who wasn’t even a lock to start for the Flames prior to the series.

After the the series ended, the Vezina-nominated Winnipeg netminder attributed some of Calgary’s success to luck.

“It just popped at the most opportune times, right on their sticks,” he said.

Although the Jets lost four-to-nothing on Thursday, they were not blown out of the water. Two Calgary goals went into an empty net during the final minutes before elimination. Winnipeg was still trying to claw its way back into the short series up until the 57th minute of Game 4.

“There was nothing left in the tank,” Wheeler said after the loss. ”It just wasn’t meant to be.”

He wasn’t just referring to Thursday, but the entire, eventful season.

“It was a year that was a test, kind of from Day 1,” the captain said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team. Realistically, there were plenty of opportunities for us to fold it in and chalk it up to a lost year.”

Dillon Dube scored the winning goal, while Cam Talbot made 31 saves as Calgary shut out Winnipeg 4-0 to bounce the Jets from the Stanley Cup qualifier. 1:08

Nonetheless, there was one moment on Thursday that seemed to exemplify the season. Late in the first period, with the Jets down a goal but controlling much of the play, Calgary’s Sam Bennett jammed a rebound past Hellebuyck.

There were 0.3 seconds left on the play clock.

The Jets can now look forward to an unusual offseason. On Monday, Winnipeg has a 12.5 per cent of winning the NHL draft lottery and picking up top prospect Alexis Lafrenière.

Injuries to Laine and forward Mason Appleton are expected to heal in three weeks, Maurice said. Scheifele’s leg may take longer to heal but does not involve a cut to the Achilles tendon, the coach added.

The Jets also have decisions to make when it comes to re-signing unrestricted free agents like Dylan DeMelo, Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Eakin. Winnipeg may have more money to play with, now that Byfuglien’s salary is off the books.

On the other hand, the pandemic could change the league’s salary structure, which is based on revenue. The pandemic may also mean no fans in the stands if the NHL starts a regular season this winter.

It remains to be seen whether any Canadian government will permit teams to travel outside of a bubble only four months down the road, let alone allow fans back in the stands. It’s unlikely any vaccine or even drug treatment for COVID-19 will be developed by the time Winnipeg gets as frigid as Jack Torrance was at the end of The Shining.

The NHL as a whole faces the prospect of vastly different regulatory regimes in Canada and the U.S. this coming winter.

Jets forward Adam Lowry, however, expressed some optimism after the prolonged pandemic pause this spring was followed by what he described as ”a whirlwind” this summer.

“I think it will be a little easier, knowing there will be a little downtime,” he said.

After this season’s suspense, the Jets deserve an anticlimax.

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