The Winnipeg Jets have played well in spurts in the first five games of their crucial nine-game stretch against teams outside the playoff picture, but 60-minute efforts have eluded them.
Jets Need More Complete Efforts
Take their Friday-night loss to the San Jose Sharks as a prime example. You could call them snake-bitten or cursed and point to the fact Kyle Connor missed a wide-open net with the extra attacker and Aaron Dell down and out and that they fired 13 power play shots and six more with Connor Hellebuyck pulled.
However, you could also call them inconsistent and point to the fact they were greatly outplayed at five-on-five, generated just 13 shots in the 54-plus minutes they weren’t on the power play or playing with an empty net, and couldn’t beat the neutral zone trap to gain the offensive zone. The Jets, at one point, went more than 20 minutes without a shot on goal.
In their 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers, an early third period lull was their undoing as the Blueshirts made a 2-0 lead an insurmountable 4-0 before 90 seconds had elapsed in the final frame. The Jets pushed back after, but it was too late. That third period came after a pedestrian second, in which the Jets were static in the neutral zone. Their shot quantity was there — 43 on rookie phenom Igor Shesterkin — but the quality wasn’t.
Even in wins, they’ve been sleepy for stretches. Their first period against the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 9 was a disaster as the visitors jumped out to a 2-0 lead and made the home side look like they forgot the game started an hour earlier than usual. The Jets luckily woke up in time and roared back in the second and third with five unanswered goals.
In their 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators to open the home stand, they scored three of their goals on the power play, all courtesy of Patrik Laine.
Even strength play against their basement-dwelling opponent was nearly dead-even.
Jets Trying to Force Things
After the loss to the Sharks, head coach Paul Maurice attributed his team’s lack of five-on-five success to their penchant for forcing ill-advised seam passes and passing up good shooting opportunities.
“We just got hung up at the line a whole lot of times, and when we did (get into the zone) we seemed to be looking for seam plays that aren’t there this time of year. We don’t want to shoot the puck,” he said, alluding to the fact six of his players didn’t have a shot attempt.
Could New Lines Be The Solution?
Prior to Sunday’s game versus the Blackhawks, Maurice promised he was going to bring out the line blender to try and get his team going.
He certainly pressed puree, breaking up the Connor/Mark Scheifele/Laine top line and putting his three 2015 draft picks — Jansen Harkins, Jack Roslovic, and Mason Appleton — together on the third line. He also scratched Logan Shaw in favour of rugged Russian Andrei Chibisov, who made his NHL debut and skated the solo lap after putting up 24 points in 48 games for the Manitoba Moose.
The result was three even-strength goals in a penalty-free 3-2 victory with the “Class of 2015” line leading the charge. They produced two of those goals and combined for four points, driving play and getting triple-shifted at one point.
In a season where the Jets don’t have many players willing to go net-front to get greasy goals, especially with Adam Lowry out, it was refreshing to see that line go to the net and score a couple of goals on deft deflections.
First and foremost, we were fast,” Appleton, who had a goal and an assist, said. “We can, all three, use our speed to our advantage and then drive defenceman back and make simple plays to the net and then that creates havoc and it’s a simple game. But that’s where goals are scored: in the front of the net.”
“They can all skate… they all have good hands. What they did tonight to score the goals was the game that they need to play and the only game they need to play,” Maurice said postgame. “The time to find seams — the Toews to Kane backdoor play — you get to do that after you’ve got all your rings lined up. Prior to that, you need to get to the basics of the game understand it and do it consistently… they were very effective at doing it. They can do that. They can excel at that. They can produce in this league doing that. They were really good for us tonight and they won us the game, two big goals for sure.”Paul Maurice on the “Class of 2015” line
The win wasn’t perfect by any means — it was an overall sloppy affair that featured a total yard sale in the dying minutes, where the Jets somehow held onto the tenuous lead despite not being able to clear the zone after the Blackhawks pulled Corey Crawford. It also saw them allow another goal with less than one minute remaining in a period. Those goals are huge momentum killers.
While Maurice denied the shuffles were meant to get the struggling Scheifele — who has no goals in his past 11 games and has been defensively deficient — going, perhaps having Andrew Copp and Nikolaj Ehlers alongside him will be the change he needs.
Crucial Stretch Continues With Jets Still in the Fight
The Jets desperately need more from their alternate captain and others — such as Ehlers, who has just four goals in 2020 — as they continue to jockey for position in the log-jammed Western Conference wild card race.
The Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes own those two spots with 66 points each. The Jets are tied with the Nashville Predators with 65 points each.
The fact the Jets have been up-and-down is not helping to clear up whether they’ll be buyers or sellers at next Monday’s trade deadline. While they certainly shouldn’t do anything like trade away their first-round pick for a defensive rental — we’ve seen with the Andy Greene trade just how much teams will be demanding for experienced blue-liners — they do have some assets at their disposal they can play with.
How they perform in the next week will determine what they do. Their needs have become more clear now that they know Dustin Byfuglien’s contract is in the process of being terminated and that Bryan Little will not be returning this season as he continues to recover from the serious head and ear injury he suffered in early November.
We explored prior to the do-or-die home stand that the Jets would need to win at least four out of six at Bell MTS Place if they wanted to stay in the race. Despite being far from perfect, they can do just that with a victory Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Kings. They’re once again “staying in the fight” and that will make for a tense and exciting finish to the season.
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