As recently as five months ago, it would have made no sense to learn the Winnipeg Jets just beat the Vancouver Canucks in an exhibition game held inside an empty Edmonton arena prior to a midsummer playoff series against the Calgary Flames.
But this is 2020, when every morning presents an opportunity to experience something new and weird and if you’re lucky, not entirely terrifying or soul-destroying.
That includes watching NHL hockey played inside a presumably pandemic-proof bubble, with NHL banners covering entire sections of lower-bowl stands and simulated fan excitement mixed into the Sportsnet broadcast during significant scoring chances and following goals.
The first display of Winnipeg Jets hockey in 141 days was not, as some skeptics feared, an entirely sterile TV-watching experience.
“During the play, it felt completely normal,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler told reporters after the 4-1 Winnipeg victory. “Once there was a TV timeout, it was a little crazy.”
Crazy as in it must have been unearthly quiet in the bowels of Rogers Place. You know, like an airport during a pandemic, or a COVID-era Canada-U.S. border post, or any Florida Panthers home game on a day that ends in Y.
Fans watching did not get to experience the sound of silence. Instead, the vision that was planted in their brains was something resembling a normal Sportsnet broadcast, albeit with the goal horns and celebration songs of both the ostensible home and visiting teams.
As well, the ice-level microphones were mixed into the broadcast so quietly, you could barely hear any player chatter, let alone the taunts and profanity that could have spiced up the NHL’s stodgy image. Anyone hoping to hear Slap Shot-worthy dialogue would have been disappointed.
In fact, it was easy to forget this was a game brought to you by the letter C and the number 19, especially given the way the Winnipeg Jets played.
This was, in many ways, a typical 2019-20 Winnipeg game. The Jets started slowly, gave up way too many scoring chances early and leaned on Vezina-nominated goalie Connor Hellebuyck to weather an initial storm before the rest of the team decided to skate.
Vancouver was skating infinity symbols around Winnipeg until late in the first period, when defenceman Tucker Poolman used a perfect Mark Scheifele crossing screen to float a long wrist shot past Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom.
The Jets cranked up the intensity during the second period with a pair of goals 85 seconds apart.
First, defender Josh Morrissey sent a long pass over to a streaking Patrik Laine, whose hard shot rebounded to Nikolaj Ehlers, who scored the equivalent of an easy basket past the paddle of a sprawling Markstrom.
Another skill play followed when forward Jack Roslovic sent a no-look pass back to defenceman Dmitry Kulikov, who made no mistake in the slot.
Vancouver’s Antoine Roussel finally slid a goal past Hellebuyck in the third period, before Wheeler finished the scoring with a late empty-netter.
For Jets fans, the sight of three separate lines scoring a goal before the end of the second period provides some confidence going into a best-of-five qualifying series against the Calgary Flames, a more defensively sound opponent.
But Winnipeg is unlikely to win many games, let alone a single series, if the team continues to start as slowly as an unplugged minivan in the middle of a Manitoba January and forces Hellebuyck to behave like a quantum field and effectively exist everywhere.
In other words, even a 20-week layoff induced by a vicious virus has not really changed the way the Winnipeg Jets play hockey. At least that’s how it looked from the small sample of a single exhibition game.
We’ll find out soon enough if this remains Winnipeg’s modus operandi. Puck drop vs. Calgary occurs at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, or precisely 20 minutes after sunset in the Manitoba capital.
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