The Montreal Canadiens built off their first-round momentum to score a pair of early goals and beat the Winnipeg Jets 5-3 to take the opening game of the second-round playoff series between the two teams.
The result, however, was overshadowed by a late-game hit from Jets forward Mark Scheifele on Jake Evans that sent Evans off on a stretcher, and could see Scheifele face disciplinary action from the NHL.
“Hopefully the young man is gonna be alright,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s such a highly unusual play because when you’re backchecking back to kill an empty net play – you’re coming full speed.
“Mark stopped skating and kept his arms in. It’s a heavy, heavy hit. There’s no doubt about that. I’m sure the league will have its opinion.”
With nine days between games the Jets clearly had some rust, while the Canadiens looked anything but a tired team coming off their emotional Game 7 win just 48 hours earlier.
“I’ve always said, I like rhythm,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. “We had good practices. I felt really good in practice. This is just one of those nights that doesn’t go your way.”
After the lengthy break, the Jets looked more like the team that limped into the playoffs than the one that just swept the Edmonton Oilers in four straight games.
“I thought they were real good,” said Maurice. “They looked like they were right in their rhythm and we weren’t as good as we had been. We didn’t come to the rink to play regular season hockey, we understand. We’re excited about the challenge we have here that we’re dealing with. We can be better. We know that.”
In their first round playoff series the Jets limited the Oilers chances off the rush, but the Habs had countless odd man rushes in Game 1 of the series.
“Just didn’t execute,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “On top of that, they played a really good game. You got to give them a lot of credit. They played a heck of a game, certainly a great start from them and kinda put us behind.”
It’s the first loss of the playoffs for the Jets who were playing without veteran forward Paul Stastny. Stastny was a late scratch after missing Tuesday’s practice and Wednesday’s game-day skate.
“There wasn’t an event that happened in practice,” said Maurice. “He just ended up being a game-day decision on that one. So we don’t think that’s too significant. So we’ll list him as day-to-day.”
The Jets also had three other players suffer injuries during Game 1. Mathieu Perreault and Adam Lowry both returned to the game after spending time in the dressing room. But defenceman Dylan DeMelo left the game just 29 seconds into his first shift and didn’t return after getting tangled up along the boards.
“Dylan got hurt on his first shift,” Maurice said. “And I won’t have a better feel for what it is until tomorrow.”
Jesperi Kotkaniemi opened the scoring on Montreal’s first shot on goal, while Eric Staal doubled the lead less than two minutes later. Nick Suzuki, Brendan Gallagher and Evans had the other goals for the Canadiens.
Montreal entered the series on short rest, having beat the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night to advance and face the Jets. Winnipeg last played on May 24 when they completed a sweep of Edmonton.
Lowry, Derek Forbort and Kyle Connor had the Jets goals while Winnipeg played the majority of the game with five defencemen.
Before the game, the Jets held a ceremony to recognize the 215 children whose bodies were found in unmarked burial sites at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
500 fully vaccinated healthcare workers were also taking in the game, the first time the Jets have allowed any fans in the seats since March 9, 2020.
Kotkaniemi’s opener came just 3:30 into the opening period. Montreal defenceman Jeff Petry looked to be shooting from the blueline but sent a hard slap pass in his direction for his fourth goals through seven games in the postseason.
Staal doubled the visitor’s lead just past the five-minute mark. After the Jets weren’t able to clear the puck, Corey Perry drove the net and found a wide-open Staal in front of the net for the tap-in.
The Jets would get on the board later in the opening frame. Killing off a Dominic Toninato penalty, Lowry stole the puck from Montreal defenceman Erik Gustafsson and sent himself on a breakaway, slotting the puck between the legs of Montreal goalie Carey Price.
That goal seemed to fire up both teams as the two sides traded scoring chances late in the period. Connor was denied by Price on a good opportunity for Winnipeg to tie the score.
But the Canadiens would regain their two-goal lead and in spectacular fashion. Suzuki faked an initial shot before dragging the puck to his backhand and pulling it around the leg of Hellebuyck and into the net.
Montreal nearly made it a 4-1 hockey game before the period’s end, but Kotkaniemi was called for goaltender interference on the play. Along with a 3-1 lead, Montreal outshot Winnipeg 12-11 in the first.
Neither side managed to find the back of the net in the second period and the Jets survived a couple more injury scares. Perreault blocked a Shea Weber shot with the inside of his left leg, but quickly returned after going down the tunnel. Lowry also went to the dressing room after an errant dump-in attempt by the Jets ended up on their bench and looked to hit the big-bodied centreman.
Hellebuyck did his part to keep Winnipeg within two, including a glove save on a partial breakaway from Joel Armia. The Jets outshot Montreal 11-9 in the period.
The third would see Winnipeg briefly get back within a goal of the Canadiens. After the Jets managed to extend the shift by keeping the puck in the offensive zone, a perfect pass from Pierre-Luc Dubois in the corner found defenseman Derek Forbort at the top of the circle and he put his shot over the glove of Price and into the top corner.
But a puck-over-glass penalty to Josh Morrissey put Montreal on the power play midway through the period. Weber’s breakaway attempt was stopped by the pad of Hellebuyck and Gallagher put the loose puck into the net for the 4-2 lead.
Down by two without much time left on the clock, the Jets pulled the goalie and were able to get back within one. Connor took a cross-ice feed from Nikolaj Ehlers and buried his one-timer past Price to make it a 4-3 game with just under two minutes left to play.
But that was as close as the Jets would get. Evans would score on the empty net to put the game away right as he was decked by Scheifele.
Price made 27 saves on 30 shots for the win, his fourth straight victory in the postseason. Hellebuyck made 28 saves on 32 Montreal shots in a losing effort.
Winnipeg will get a chance to even the series when they host Montreal in Game 2 on Friday night. You can listen to the game live on 680 CJOB with Kelly Moore, Paul Edmonds, and Jamie Thomas with the pregame show starting at 4:30 p.m. and puck drop just after 6:30 p.m.