WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Blake Wheeler best summed up the mood in the Winnipeg Jets’ locker room after their season had ended Sunday.
“Pretty empty. Emotionless,” the Jets captain said after the Golden Knights eliminated Winnipeg with a 2-1 win and a 4-1 series victory in the Western Conference Final.
The Jets thought they were going to be the ones playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. Instead, it’s the Knights who have earned that opportunity in their inaugural season.
“No, I thought this was our year,” said Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. “You could see how hard everyone was working. How much everyone wanted it. That’s why this one’s tough.”
Forward Matthew Perreault said: “We won two series. We beat the No. 1 team in the league, so the sky’s the limit at this point. And then you have to win two more series. Yeah, that’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in sports.
“It’s hard to believe it’s over, really. We tried so hard, too. We left it all out there. It’s so disappointing when you put so much effort into it and the result’s just not there. It’s hard to swallow.”
The Jets can point to a number of factors that led to their demise. They had come off a tough seven-game series in the second round against Nashville. They ran into a hot goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. Mark Scheifele got little help offensively.
Add it up and it means locker room clean-out day at the Bell MTS Place.
“Every game was tight,” said Scheifele, who scored three of Winnipeg’s 10 goals in the five games against the Knights. “Every game was a matter of inches, almost. They capitalized when they needed the chance and it just sucks.
“They had the best goalie in the league right now. He stood on his head. He made a lot of big saves and their D played solid.”
Coach Paul Maurice said lack of execution, not lack of effort, ultimately did the Jets in.
“I don’t think we ran out of gas at all,” Maurice said. “We lost some sharpness. When you look at the second half of our last two games, especially, we were driving as hard as we could. So there was fuel in the tank. There was a hard and heavy push and it was right. The compete was as good in this series, certainly in pieces of the game, as it’s been all year.
“But a lot of the plays did not come off our stick the way they had prior to it, and it wasn’t a matter of tightness. Our hands felt it. Your brain goes a little slower, it gets off your stick a little quicker, your reads are a little slower. But the will was still there.”
Wheeler was gracious in defeat.
“Typically in a seven-game series, the better team wins,” he said. “Coming into it, I thought we had the best team. I felt that way and obviously I’m a little bit biased, standing in this room feeling that we had a great opportunity. They made it really tough for us. We had to work for everything we got and even when we broke them down, we just couldn’t seem to ever gain the type of momentum we needed to get this thing on our terms.
“It was their time. They’re just playing really well. And you have to give them all the credit.”