The Winnipeg Jets played back-to-back road games this weekend against two Central Division opponents below them. By only winning one, they missed an opportunity to gain further ground in the tight Western Conference Wild Card race.
Here, we’ll take a closer look the pair of games and their playoff hopes, which are somehow still being kept alive despite all their struggles.
Jets’ Urgency Levels Rose Briefly, Then Fell Again
On Saturday afternoon against the Nashville Predators — one of the Jets’ two competitors for the second Wild Card spot — the visitors’ urgency was on display and they were putting the puck to the net at just about every opportunity. Through two periods, they had mainly controlled flow but hadn’t got a puck behind Preds’ all-star netminder Juuse Saros, in a game eerily reminiscent of the 3-0 defeat they’d suffered two days earlier at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
Down 1-0 in the mid-third, Nikolaj Ehlers scored the team’s first goal in six periods on a wicked slap shot, but the very next shift, the Jets fell behind again as Luke Evangelista slid a shot past Connor Hellebuyck from the slot.
That goal looked to be the dagger against a mentally fragile team, but Adam Lowry — who has had a miserable time producing offence over the past three months — scored just his second goal since December to knot things at two.
The game went to overtime, and in the extra frame, Neal Pionk notched the winner on a tap-in thanks to a smart rush by Pierre-Luc Dubois, who made his return to the lineup after missing five games with an injury.
The come-from-behind win represented the potential starting point for a turnaround, but the Jets quickly regressed to their shoddy second-half form by no-showing against the Blues in St. Louis the following night and getting blanked for the second time in three games.
Joel Hofer, making just the fourth NHL start of his career, was the latest netminder the Jets made look like the second coming of Dominik Hasek. Hofer and Thomas Griess — who played a couple of minutes in the second when Hofer needed a skate repair — combined for 34 saves but had an easy time overall with the chances the uninterested Jets did manage to muster.
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The only player who showed any heart against a loose Blues squad playing without the weight of expectations was Ehlers, who dropped the gloves with Brayden Schenn in the second but took a beating. When your most dynamic offensive forward is fighting (badly) to inject some passion into his teammates, you know a team’s in trouble.
Trend of Early Goals Against Continued
The Jets have been doing more chasing than Wile E. Coyote in a Looney Tunes short lately. It’s not the Road Runner they’ve been chasing, but instead tie games due to allowing quick goals.
Falling behind early has been a month-long trend — entering the weekend, the Jets had allowed the first goal in nine of their past 10 and had given up a goal less than five minutes into the first five times in March — and it was no different over the weekend.
The Predators opened the scoring at 5:26 on a pedestrian-looking chance shortly after Dubois missed a back-door tap-in at the other end, and the Blues opened the scoring at 4:04 when Kasperi Kapanen was left all alone in from of the net.
In both games, the Jets actually started pretty well. Against the Blues, for example, they had the first five shots of the game and Nate Schmidt hit the post prior to Kapanen’s goal.
“We couldn’t ask for a better start and then all of a sudden we’re down 1-0 because we make a mistake and it’s in the back of the net,” head coach Rick Bowness said postgame to succinctly sum up the issue.
Indeed, it seems that the first time Bowness’ squad makes even the slightest error, the red light is on behind Hellebuyck or David Rittich seconds later. These early goals change the complexion of the game and the Jets seem resigned to the fact they’ll be trailing by the 10-minute mark.
Every time it happens, you can see the team deflate in a “here-we-go-again” sort of way. The simple fact is the chance of victory falls dramatically when the first opponent scores first and the Jets usually aren’t resilient enough to recover. They are 13-20-1 when the opponent scores first, and 26-9-2 when scoring first.
Power Play Keeps Coming Up Empty
The only thing the Jets’ power play has the power to do right now is to frustrate those watching. They went a combined zero-for-six against the Predators and Blues, and their inefficiency and lack of creativity is costing them chances to get back into games, build on a lead, or at least grab momentum.
As an example, the Jets got a four-minute power play against the Blues in the first period when Torey Krug mauled Kevin Stenlund in retaliation for a hit Stenlund laid on Nathan Walker. The Jets wasted the glorious chance to tie the game, mustering just two shots and generating very little zone time.
The Jets scored three power play goals on their 2-1-0 Eastern road trip, but that turned out to be just a brief upward blip on a steady downward trajectory in power play percentage. The Jets have only one goal on their last 15 power play opportunities and are now 21st in the NHL with a 20.4 per cent efficiency.
Jets Somehow Still Control Their Own Destiny, But Look Nothing Like a Cup Contender
The Jets have the sixth-worst record (based on points percentage) in the NHL over the past two months, going 10-15-2 since Jan. 17. Its not good for a team whose contention window is said to be open to be in the company of clubs angling for Connor Bedard, but despite how badly they’ve fallen off after a strong first half, they still control their own destiny.
Compared to the powerful Eastern Conference, the Western Conference playoff race has been described as a “turtle derby.” The Jets have 81 points and trail the Seattle Kraken for the first Wild Card spot by two points, but the Kraken have two games in hand. The Calgary Flames remain four points back of the Jets with one game in hand (the Flames play Monday night) while the Predators — after getting thumped 7-0 by the New York Rangers Sunday — remain five points back with three games in hand.
Speaking after the loss to the Blues, Nate Schmidt said the obvious: “any time you lose a game at this time of year, I feel like it’s a lost opportunity to get yourself a little further in the standings.” He added, however, they “have 11 games left to do right” and are “in a dogfight right now.”
Three of the Jets’ next four games are against teams below the playoff line in the Arizona Coyotes (Tuesday), Anaheim Ducks (Thursday), and San Jose Sharks (March 28.) But how anemic the Jets have been should put any notions of a “schedule advantage” straight into the trash.
Bowness has spoken about the team needing to have a “short memory” down the stretch, but the Jets need to remember who they were between October and mid-January, when they were battling for first in the Division and even the Conference.
If they manage to squeak into playoffs with this many problems, they will not “flip the switch” (because that’s not a thing) but will be dispatched quickly by whoever their opponent ends up being. Some pundits, such as the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck, believes missing the playoffs might actually “be a net positive” for the True North organization as it would them “to make serious changes after trying endlessly to make this team and its core work,” a core that after a while, simply tunes out whoever the coach is and is not of strong enough collective character to consistently commit to working hard.
After the weekend’s games, it’s hard not to give some credence to that point of view. If the Jets do miss the playoffs, the calls for a scorched-earth rebuild and a GM change will get even louder and more justifiable.