The first round of this Canadian heavyweight championship bout ended with an ugly incident in the last minute of play.
Montreal forward Jake Evans beat every Jet on the ice to the puck behind an empty net, brought it to the front and scored to clinch a 5-3 victory over Winnipeg at Bell MTS Place on Wednesday night.
Just after Evans scored, Jets centre Mark Scheifele issued a brutal hit on the forward, who collapsed and was later taken off the ice on a stretcher. Scheifele will likely face a suspension of at least one game.
Montreal takes a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series. The second round will be played in Winnipeg on Friday. But most of the post-game talk was about Scheifele’s illegal blow.
“It was a dirty hit,” fumed Montreal defenceman Joel Edmundson. “I hope he’s (Evans) OK.
“I’m sure the league will look after it. If he (Scheifele) gets back in the series, we’re going to make his life miserable.”
Winnipeg forward Nikolaj Ehlers did at least come to Evans’s defence as he lay on the ice.
“Obviously, I hope he’s OK,” Ehlers said. “I came back and saw that he wasn’t looking good and obviously, when something like that happens, there’s a scrum but I was just trying to keep everyone away from him. In a situation like that, you don’t want anyone falling on top of him. So, I was just trying to keep everyone away.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that it was “a heavy, heavy hit, there’s no doubt about that. I’m sure the league will have its opinion.”
Other Jets also expressed concern for Evans.
“It’s never good to see a guy down on the ice for that amount of time and for them to bring the stretcher out, it’s scary,” said captain Blake Wheeler. “So, we’re just hoping that he’s OK.”
Jets forward Kyle Connor had scored on a slapshot with the goalie pulled to pull Winnipeg to within 4-3 late in the third period. Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher had scored a powerplay goal to up the score to 4-2 midway through the final frame. Winnipeg defenceman Derek Forbort made it 3-2 when he beat Montreal goaltender Carey Price over the shoulder.
“It’s tough to match what those guys had just been through,” Wheeler said. “They just won an emotional Game 7 (over the Toronto Maple Leafs) and they’re kind of riding that high, and we have just sort of been sitting on our hands (during a nine-day layoff). So, it’s tough to match that. They certainly got off to a good lead tonight and it’s tough to claw our way back … They played a great game.”
Montreal had pounced on the rusty Jets, taking a 3-1 lead into the second period. After Winnipeg’s Adam Lowry scored on a shorthanded breakaway to make the score 2-1, Nick Suzuki scored on a 2-on-1.
Forwards Eric Staal and Jesperi Kotkanieme had given Montreal a 2-0 lead just 5:10 into the game.
“We just weren’t particularly sharp,” Maurice said. “You can look slow when the other team plays a really fast game … You’ve got to look at Montreal and say they played a hell of a game.”
NOTES – Jets centre Paul Stastny was a surprise scratch and was replaced in the lineup by Dominic Toninato … The Jets also lost defenceman Dylan DeMelo to a lower-body injury in the opening minutes of the game … Jets centre Adam Lowry had to leave the game briefly after taking a puck in the ear while sitting on the bench.