Jets snowed under in St. Paul as Winnipeg white-knuckles its way to its first loss of the 2018 playoffs
Jets lose 6-2 in front of hundreds of fans who braved blizzard conditions to attend
On Saturday, it took a force of nature to stop the Winnipeg Jets. On Sunday, it only took the Minnesota Wild.
Flying into St. Paul with a 2-0 lead in their first-round series against their closest geographic neighbour, the Jets sputtered and crashed in a 6-2 loss to the Wild.
The Minnesota victory deprived Winnipeg of the opportunity to notch the first road playoff victory in the history of the current franchise. It also allowed the Wild a foothold in a series that was all Jets up to a snowy Sunday evening at Xcel Energy Center, where hundreds of Winnipeg fans shrunk into the stands.
Most of those fans braved the 750-kilometre drive from Winnipeg on an April weekend where southern Minnesota looked more like the northern latitudes of Norway in November.
"We saw cars going into the ditch. We saw tons of people going half the speed limit. We even saw a postal car flip over," said Winnipegger Ben Ramos, who got up early Saturday morning to start the drive to the Twin Cities in an effort to beat what started as a blizzard and turned into a 48-hour snowfall.
"We drove down around like 4 or 5 in the morning because [CBC meteorologist] John Sauder said leave at that time."
The unusual spring storm, which helped Minneapolis-St. Paul set a snowfall record for the month of April, left hundreds of kilometres of roads in treacherous conditions, temporarily closed Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and forced the Winnipeg Jets to land in Duluth on Saturday, wait hours on the tarmac and then return to Winnipeg the same day.
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After they finally made it to Minnesota on Sunday, the Jets shrugged off their travel ordeal.
"We had a little tour of northern Minnesota," captain Blake Wheeler told reporters prior to the game. "It was a long day. Ultimately ... we got to spend a little extra quality time with the guys."
Centre Paul Stastny joked his teammates began to get a little antsy "once we ran out of food" on the plane.
Coach Paul Maurice, however, said the Duluth detour was no more onerous than a regular travel day to a Pacific-division hockey destination, such as Anaheim.
"You play in the Western Conference and you have a one-hour flight to your first [road] playoff game and it's about two-and-a-half hours shorter than what we did four years ago," Maurice said. "This is easy travel."
Fans who made the trip by road had a different perspective — and not just because the Jets spun out Sunday as violently as a rear-wheel-drive El Camino outfitted with summer tires.
"There were lots of wrecks, I tell you that," said Winnipegger Daniel Reis, who broke the trip up into two segments on Friday and Saturday.
"There were some tense moments," added Rick Friesen, who made the trip on Sunday — as a passenger on a 24-seat bus.
"I'm thankful the driver was wide awake the whole time," quipped Friesen, adding he was happy he wasn't behind the wheel for the drive.
Some Minnesota fans also travelled a great distance to catch Game 3.
Stephen Strom, an NCAA basketball player from New Jersey, spent US$600 to fly to Minneapolis-St. Paul to see the Wild live,
"This is definitely worse than Jersey," he said of the Sunday-afternoon snow flurries outside Xcel Energy Centre.
"I was born in New Jersey, unfortunately. My mom had a job in New Jersey and my dad followed her. They had me [and] I was adopted into Minnesota sports.
"I haven't seen a Viking championship, a Wild championship, anything, other than the Minnesota Lynx. I had to collect my money for these road trips and I spent $600 [USD] to come here."
Winnipegger Ben Ramos, however, wasn't too impressed by one of the worst April storms in southern Minnesota history,
"The locals are saying the weather isn't that great, but actually the weather is fine," he said with no small degree of swagger. "This is nothing compared to Winnipeg weather. We're used to it."
The Jets and Wild play again in St. Paul on Tuesday in Game 4 of their opening-round series.