April 1990 - The high point that wasn't
There are those who would argue that the high point of Winnipeg Jets' history came on April 10, 1990 when Dave Ellett's slap shot early in the second overtime period gave the Jets a 4-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers. The dramatic win lifted the Jets into a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven first-round series against the team that had once beat the Jets 16 consecutive times in post-season competition.
At last, it was the Jets' turn. They had the Oilers on the ropes, a possibility that even the most die-hard fan could not have possibly contemplated at the beginning of the season.
An almost unanimous choice to repeat as the Smythe Division doormat, the Jets began the 1989-1990 season with modest expectations. Mike Smith, in his first full year as General Manager, having taken over the prior season from the deposed John Ferguson, had cleaned house over the summer, dismissing many long-tenured members of the organization including Bill Sutherland, Barry Long, and even equipment manager Jack “Smokey” Stouffer. He hired coach Bob Murdoch, a positive, upbeat individual, and he also made a number of trades to remake the roster, emphasizing speed and character.
Early returns were mixed. Iconic star Dale Hawerchuk struggled under the new “team” concept preached by Murdoch and goaltending was again a problem, as it had been so often during the Jets' NHL years. After an impressive debut the previous season, Bob Essensa failed to earn a job in training camp and began the year in the minor leagues, leaving the netminding chores to Tom Draper and Daniel Berthiaume.
Draper was less than stellar and though Berthiaume was able to bounce back from a year in which he left the team and was suspended twice, his tenure with the Jets came to an abrupt end following an incident in late January in which he cussed out some children seeking an autograph after a game. Once regarded as a future star who would backstop the Jets to the Promised Land, he was promptly traded to the Minnesota North Stars.
Essensa and rookie Stephane Beauregard took over between the pipes and with contributions from the entire roster, including a revitalized Hawerchuk as well as Thomas Steen, who was in the midst of his finest NHL season, the Jets' fortunes began to improve. A first-place finish in the Smythe Division was in the Jets' crosshairs for a time, but they had to settle for third and a date with their perennial playoff nemesis, the Edmonton Oilers.
These Oilers, however, were different from the group that had walked over the Jets so often in seasons past. Gone was superstar Wayne Gretzky and, perhaps more importantly, goaltender Grant Fuhr, who was out with a shoulder injury. The Oilers would instead have to rely upon untested youngster Bill Ranford.
Still, they were the Oilers. The “little sisters of the poor”, to borrow a line from former Jets' coach Tom Watt, could have dressed up in Oilers' uniforms and have given the Jets fits.
The series opened in Edmonton and for the first time since joining the NHL in 1979, the Jets won a playoff game at the Northlands Coliseum. Ranford was shaky and it looked like the Jets had a real chance. Two nights later, however, the Jets blew a 2-0 third-period lead and dropped a 3-2 decision in overtime.
Back in Winnipeg for Game 3, the Jets played the Oilers tough once again. This time, the Jets used a late goal from Hawerchuk for a 2-1 win that gave them an identical margin in the series.
Unfathomably, the Jets took to the ice in Game 4 with a chance to take a stranglehold on the series.
The Jets jumped out to a 3-1 lead, only to again blow it, sending the game to overtime. What became the longest game in Jets' history ended with Ellett's goal that blew the roof off the Arena 16 years before its eventual demolition. All that was needed was one more win to give the Oilers an early head start on their off-season. Those April tee times usually reserved for the Jets would have to wait.
Showing no regard for past playoff failures, the Jets went back to Edmonton for Game 5 and took a 3-1 lead for the second straight game. The usual smirks on the faces of the arrogant Oilers were replaced with looks of concern.
Then the clock struck midnight.
The Oilers promptly tied the score, then took the lead. The Jets kept battling and tied the score, only to have referee Denis Morel wave off the game-tying goal on account of the fact that Paul MacDermid was in the crease. Never mind that he was being held there by Kelly Buchberger, this goal was not going to count.
The Jets did have another glorious opportunity to tie the score, but Ranford came up with a big stop on Hawerchuk, who was sent in alone on the Oilers' substitute goaltender. Steen earned a gross misconduct from Morel after the game arguing the call on the disallowed goal, but it did nothing to change the outcome. The ghosts of the Northlands Coliseum had risen up to haunt the Jets one more time.
All was not lost, however, as the Jets still carried a 3-2 series lead back to Winnipeg. Things didn't look too promising when the Oilers picked up right where they left off two nights earlier and had the Jets down 3-0, but rather than fold, as had been their custom so often in years past, the Jets unleashed the “Charge of the White Brigade”. They rallied to tie the score, only to fall short when old nemesis Jari Kurri, who had made a career out of firing pucks into empty nets after being set up by Gretzky, cruised into the Jets' zone and beat Essensa for what would prove to be the game-winner.
The Jets' best opportunity to eliminate the Oilers was now gone.
Jets' President Barry Shenkarow would later blame this loss on the delay caused by a fan tossing a box of popcorn on the ice that sapped the Jets' momentum when the game was still tied at 3-3. Though the incident would become the theme of a film entitled “Death by Popcorn”, that episode was little more than a convenient excuse for gassing one of a number of golden opportunities to capture what would have been their third NHL playoff series victory.
With everything going the Oilers' way, the results of the deciding Game 7 were almost pre-ordained. The Jets, backstopped by a shaky Beauregard, went down by a score of 4-1 to complete the epic collapse.
Despite the defeat, Murdoch earned Coach of the Year honors, becoming the second Jets' coach to win the Jack Adams Award, but the fragile foundation fell apart yet again. After trading Hawerchuk during the off-season, the team that came within a whisker of eliminating the eventual Stanley Cup champions missed the playoffs for the second time in three years. Murdoch was fired after the season and the Jets were left to pick up the pieces.
In the end, Ellett's goal that night in April wasn't the high point that the crowd thought it was. Instead, it served only to epitomize what it meant to be a fan of the NHL Jets. Lofty expectations followed by a crushing letdown.