Nikolaj Ehlers will never be mistaken for a braggadocio. Speaking on a Zoom conference call after his goal sealed a 3-2 win for his Winnipeg Jets against the Calgary Flames in Game 2 of their qualifying round matchup, Ehlers was stoic as ever, downplaying what was an incredibly dramatic night for one player to experience. But it's Blake Wheeler's job as captain to see the big picture, read his teammates and act as a conduit between them and the coaching staff. Ehlers may not have wanted to acknowledge to the epicness of his storyline, but Wheeler summarized it with his trademark eloquence.
“It’s a crazy game, this game we play, it’s an odd-shaped puck, and there’s cracks all over the ice," Wheeler said. "And the bounces the puck take are sometimes for and against you. Sometimes you wonder if the hockey gods are a real thing. Nicky’s had some incredible opportunities in the last two post-season runs to score goals, and it just hasn’t worked out for him. And then he’s getting cross-checked in the back, and one hits off his stick and goes into an empty net. I think that’s a testament to a guy sticking with it, doing the right thing and staying in the fight. You guys have no idea what a lift that is, especially when you have to answer the same question post-season after post-season, why you’re not scoring, why you’re not producing, especially a guy who’s used to doing it. So he’s going to have a good sleep tonight, and we’re going to see some fireworks out of him hopefully tomorrow.”
Since debuting in 2015-16, Ehlers, a silky-handed and blindingly fast left winger, had more regular-season points than all but two Jets, but he had zero goals in 22 career playoff games. He thus carried plenty of playoff baggage well before his eventful Game 2 Monday. Then things got worse. He made a hideous giveaway in the second period, throwing a puck up the middle in his own zone, right onto the stick of Calgary's Elias Lindholm, who cut a 2-0 Jets lead to 2-1. Then, with the score 2-2, at the 7:27 mark of the third, Ehlers crashed into Matthew Tkachuk recklessly and took a roughing penalty.
“When there’s 12, 13 minutes left of a hockey game, you do not want to be taking penalties," Ehlers said. "It’s not fun sitting out there.”
It was a day when the Jets needed Ehlers more than ever. Top center Mark Scheifele was out after sustaining a lower-body injury believed to be a skate cut in a controversial collision with Tkachuk, and key sniper Patrik Laine also missed Game 2 with an upper-body injury. There Ehlers was, stumbling through a game that could've rendered him a goat. He persevered, however, He got to the slot with Flames blueliner Derek Forbort draped on him and redirected a Neal Pionk point shot for a power-play goal to make it 3-2 at the 10:24 mark of the third.
“I was in there, I know what I need to do in there, and I was lucky enough to get a stick on that puck," Ehlers said. "It felt great, but you learn every single game, whether it’s pre-season or regular season or playoffs. You’ve got to get in where it hurts a little, and I was able to do that today.”
“Man, he needed that, right?" said Jets coach Paul Maurice. "You need to feel part of it. You need to feel that you’re part of the cause. And he has been. He’s played some good hockey for us. But better that than a goal in a 4-1 loss. If you’re gonna get one, he needs the game-winner in a game (where) we’re up against it. So he gets to carry that with him.”
Ehlers wasn't the only unlikely hero in Game 2. The injuries to Scheifele, Laine and Mason Appleton drew Jansen Harkins, Gabriel Bourque and Nicholas Shaw into the lineup. Harkins opened the scoring for Winnipeg in the first, finishing off a breakaway with a perfectly placed wrist shot. The Flames had a golden opportunity to put their opponent on the brink minus two of its franchise forwards but failed. Calgary went 0 for 6 on the power play. It generated more shots and scoring chances than the Jets at 5-on-5 in Game 2, but the Jets had more high-danger chances and scored on two of them. Right winger Andrew Mangiapane also took a costly retaliation penalty late in the third when he rained cross checks on Cody Eakin's back, killing Calgary's chance at a rally. So the Flames gave away a crucial opportunity – but the Jets also earned their success with what Maurice called one of the top-five gustiest team victories he's ever coached. For him, winning minus so many key players felt familiar. It's a big reason Winnipeg qualified for the playoff tournament, overcoming a parade of maladies during the regular season.
“I’m proud that we won the game in the manner that we did, with the injuries that we had, because it will give the people that are not familiar with our season a little glimpse of what we’ve been doing all year," Maurice said.
The Flames got a glimpse of a weakened Jets lineup and couldn't capitalize. Will the window close? The teams meet again Tuesday night, so a short layoff will make it tough for the Jets' wounded to make it back, but Maurice didn't rule them out. Asked about their status by Associated Press reporter Stephen Whyno, Maurice simply proclaimed, "We'll see tomorrow," offering to buy Whyno dinner for giving a "horses---" answer."
Whether some, all or none of the injured Jets return for Game 3, the Flames can't afford to come out flat again.
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