WINNIPEG — What should have been a Montreal celebration to cap a 5-3 playoff win over the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday ended with Canadiens forward Jake Evans being carried off the ice on a stretcher after a crushing hit by Mark Scheifele.
And then came the worry and the anger.
“Yeah, it was a dirty hit but the league's going to take care of it,” said Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson. “If he gets back in the series, we're going to make his life miserable, but I think the league's going to do a good job with that.”
Scheifele was assessed a major for charging and a game misconduct.
Evans, who was celebrating his 25th birthday Wednesday, had just come around the empty net and scored when Scheifele ran into him. Evans flew to the ice and banged his head with 57 seconds left on the clock.
Montreal interim head coach Dominique Ducharme, who called the hit “vicious“ and “useless,” said Evans wasn't taken to the hospital at the time of post-game media availability.
“No, he’s still here, he’s being evaluated,” Ducharme said. “He’s doing better, but before I came here he was still being evaluated.”
In 2018 during a Canadiens' rookie showdown game, Evans was hit and taken off the ice on a stretcher to hospital and then put in concussion protocol.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Eric Staal scored early in the first period to set the stage for the Canadiens' victory in Game 1 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series.
Montreal also got a goals from Nick Suzuki and Brendan Gallagher. Edmundson and Jeff Petry each added a pair of assists. Carey Price made 27 saves.
Adam Lowry, Derek Forbort and Kyle Connor, with 1:42 left in the third, scored for Winnipeg. Connor Hellebuyck stopped 28 shots.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series goes Friday in Winnipeg.
Kotkaniemi described the hit on Evans as “disgusting.”
“No respect for the other players out there,” he said. “I’m not saying anything more than that.”
Kotkaniemi did bump fists with Evans as he was being wheeled off the ice.
“Just seeing him moving after a thing like that, it’s huge,” he said. “Even getting the fist bump, you know, it’s great to see that. I’m feeling much easier now just knowing he’s OK.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice acknowledged it was a big hit by Scheifele.
“Well, hopefully the young man is going to be all right,” Maurice said of Evans. “It’s such a highly unusual play because you’re backchecking back to kill and empty-net play, you’re coming full speed.
“When Mark stopped skating he kept his arms in. It’s a heavy, heavy hit. There’s no doubt about that. I’m sure the league will have its opinion.”
Captain Blake Wheeler expressed concern about Evans.
“Just hope he's OK,” Wheeler said. “I mean, that's it. Really, that's all. That's the concern. It's never good to see a guy on the ice for that amount of time and the stretcher out is scary.”
Three of Montreal's goals were scored in the first period, beginning with Kotkaniemi at 3:30 and Staal at 5:10.
The players had more than canned crowd noise to hear inside Bell MTS Place for the first time this season.
The Manitoba government is allowing 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers to attend this week's two playoff games. More than 6,000 workers entered their names in a lottery to win a ticket.
"Utter shock,” advanced care paramedic Mike McMillan said of getting one of the coveted tickets. “It was pretty breathtaking. It's a beautiful gesture for the past 16 months.”
Manitoba is under code red restrictions that forbid public gatherings, but the health orders were changed for the games. Immediate family of Jets' players, coaches and staff could also watch the game inside the rink.
“It just felt like I could just go back to a little bit of normalcy,” said Terri Jeanson, a laboratory technologist in clinical research. “I know there's some people that are upset about it, but it definitely makes it worth what we do.”
The Canadiens were the first NHL team in Canada to have a crowd this year, allowing 2,500 fans to attend Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday after Quebec loosened restrictions.
The Leafs followed up by covering the cost for 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers to attend Game 7 against the Canadiens on Monday after being given the green light by Ontario.
The Winnipeg fans, who were given white shirts and hand towels, didn't have a chance to wave the towels in joy early in the first period.
Kotkaniemi redirected a point shot by Petry for his fourth goal of the playoffs. Staal quickly made it 2-0 with his first goal.
Winnipeg lost a player before and during the game.
Veteran Winnipeg centre Paul Statsny (undisclosed) didn't play. Defenceman Dylan DeMelo left the game early in the first and didn't return because of a lower-body injury.
Fans finally got a chance to jump out of their spaced-apart seats when Lowry scored shorthanded after defenceman Erik Gustafsson turned over the puck near the blue line. Lowry raced toward the net and slipped a backhand shot under Price's pad at 11:52.
Suzuki reinstated the two-goal lead at 17:14 during a 2-on-1 rush with Edmundson.
Winnipeg outshot the visitors 11-9 in the scoreless second period, and 22-21 up to that point.
Forbort closed the gap to 3-2 at 9:22 of the third, but Gallagher potted a rebound after a Shea Weber breakaway on the power play at 11:04.
Before the game, hockey analysts wondered if the Jets would have to shake off some rust.
It was Winnipeg's first game since May 24, when it swept the Edmonton Oilers in the North Division first round. Montreal erased a 3-1 series deficit and eliminated the Maple Leafs on Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2021.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press